How France maintains its grip
By Stephen Smith
BBC Focus on Africa Magazine
This year, 50 years on from the independence of most
former French colonies in Africa, relations between
France and its erstwhile possessions south of the
Sahara remain murkier and more confused than ever.
In the summer, Paris plans to host a so-called
"renovation summit" to revamp Franco-African
relations. But many critics, both in France and in
Africa, say the gathering will be more a sign of
business-as-usual rather than something that will
Paradoxically, protests against Francafrique (the
Franco-African shadow state which perpetuated French
influence south of the Sahara after 1960) have been
far more vocal in the wake of the massive French
disengagement from the region after the end of the
Cold War than during the three decades - les trente
glorieuses - of French neo-colonialism from
France has been reluctant to play the role of the
gendarme of Africa
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of
East-West geopolitical rivalry encouraged public
debate about France's role in Africa.
Just how many first- and second-generation
immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are living in
France today remains an open question, as French law
prohibits statistics based on racial criteria.
However, it is estimated that up to 5% of the
country's 65 million inhabitants originate from the
Many have acquired French citizenship and form,
together with long-standing French nationals from
the Antilles, what the national media refers to as
But since racially tainted riots erupted in major
French cities at the end of 2005, many French people
of African descent - perhaps alienated from the
powers-that-be in Paris - consciously define
themselves as "hyphenated" citizens: Franco-Africans
with divided national loyalties.
Renewed, balanced and transparent
On the eve of this year's Bastille Day, the heads of
state of former French interests in Africa are due
to gather around President Nicolas Sarkozy "to
highlight and to bear out the evolution of
Franco-African relations which are to remain
privileged while being renewed, balanced and
Using less convoluted language than the official
communique, the president explained in December that
the purpose was "to turn the page of the debate on
[French] colonisation and post-colonisation".
Exhibitions, round-table discussions, publications
and academic conferences have been scheduled
throughout this year.
Police patrol the city streets after a ban was
imposed on any gatherings that could potentially
cause violence on November 12, 2005
2005 saw racially focused riots erupt across much of
The high point of the festivities is to be the 14
July parade on the Champs Elysees where French and
African troops will march in lock-step saluting
President Sarkozy and his guests of honour.
The military show is meant to be a reminder of
Franco-African fraternity of arms, notably against
Nazi occupation in World War II.
The African heads of state will also attend the
traditional garden party at the Elysee Palace
following the Bastille Day parade. The event's theme
is "Diversity - the human reality which links the
colonial past to present-day immigrant France,"
according to the Elysee communique, but this in
particular is causing a few ructions.
The person appointed by Mr Sarkozy to run this
year's events is Jacques Toubon whose previous
political career is quite telling.
Not only is he a die-hard Gaullist - an ideology
named after former President Charles de Gaulle who
insisted on maintaining as much control as possible
over France's African interests - but he is also a
former minister of culture and, since 2005, has been
at the helm of a new museum dedicated to the history
of immigration in France.
The museum occupies a pavilion erected for the
Colonial Exhibition in 1931, which marked the acme
of French imperialism.
As a result, criticism has been voiced against the
mixed messages being sent by the government on the
On the one hand there seems to be a direct line
drawn between la plus grande France - the "Greater
France" of colonial times - and immigration.
But, on the other hand, since Mr Sarkozy's election
in spring 2007, the French government has
intensified efforts to conclude bilateral treaties
with states south of the Sahara aiming at a "joint
management" of migratory movements.
Yet while small and relatively privileged countries
like Gabon have signed such agreements, more
important reservoirs of sub-Saharan immigration,
namely Mali, have so far refused to "co-police"
Mr Sarkozy's government has been more successful in
renegotiating the defence treaties which were signed
with all former colonies in 1960 (except for Sekou
Toure's Guinea which cut the umbilical cord with
Paris in 1958, achieving independence two years
earlier than all the other former French colonies).
The revised treaties clarify mutual obligations and,
in particular, no longer contain "secret clauses"
for French military intervention in case of internal
Making discretionary use of its right to intervene,
France has staged over 40 military operations to
save, or sometimes topple, African regimes since
1960, mostly during the Cold War.
But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and
especially after the debacle in Rwanda in 1994,
France has been reluctant to play the role of the
gendarme of Africa.
As a result, the number of French military advisers
on the continent has been slashed from 925 in 1990
to 264 in 2008; in the same period the budget for
military assistance was halved.
There are still about 10,000 French soldiers
deployed south of the Sahara, down from 15,000 in
1989. But half of them are serving on temporary
missions, often under UN mandates.
Also, in the past 20 years, Paris has closed three
out of six permanent bases on the continent.
France's foreign direct investment in Africa has
also plummeted since the Berlin Wall crumbled. While
the African share stood at just over 30% in 1989, it
has been consistently below 5% since the turn of the
Furthermore, the bulk of France's overseas capital
investment has been shrewdly diversified beyond
former colonial boundaries in favour of
non-francophone countries such as Nigeria, Angola,
Kenya and South Africa.
Yet, despite France's disengagement from its former
colonies, political mores between Paris and the
francophone capitals of the continent remained
characterised by back-door arrangements and shady
Nicolas Sarcozy speaks at an event sponsored by the
American Jewish Committee in Washington
Nicolas Sarkozy had committed to combating
As a presidential candidate, Mr Sarkozy committed
himself to cleaning up les reseau: the informal
Franco-African networks. "We must rid Franco-African
relations of the networks of a bygone age," he
declared in a speech in Benin in 2006.
But since he took office, President Sarkozy has
perpetuated France's time-honoured tradition of
parallel diplomacy in Africa.
One set of advisers presides in public over the
official business with Africa, while high-ranking
Elysee staff, in tandem with unofficial middlemen,
is in charge of the lucrative and highly
personalised politics that Mr Sarkozy denounced
during his presidential campaign.
The French media regularly expose the broken
promises and the new lease on life given to
The elite collusion of Francafrique has become an
anachronism, at odds with the stark realities of
shrinking French engagement - both government and
private - with its former territories south of the
For example, Mauritania's General Mohammed Ould
Abdelaziz continued to visit the Elysee Palace after
the coup that brought him to power, despite being
denounced in capitals across Europe.
Hence, if they care at all, most French belittle the
2010 "renovation summit" as a political gimmick,
actually not all that different from the so-called
"independence of the flag" granted to the African
colonies in 1960.
Stephen Smith is a visiting professor at Duke
University in the United States. His new book - Le
Nouveau Monde Franco-Africain - was released in