France and Africa have a long and intertwined history. As a former colonial ruler, France still possesses considerable influence and power in its former colonies to this very day, but the connections between Paris and its former colonial brethren are deeper than commonly assumed. The entanglement – a concept referred to as “la Françafrique” – consists of symbiotic relationships between France and African governments with kickbacks and privileges for the ruling elites, ranging from Élysée -backed coups to lavish safaris and bribe-taking on a massive scale. As Le Monde so succinctly wrote, Françafrique involves a hazy network of economic, political and military actors in France and Africa, focused on rent-seeking through raw materials and development aid.
Although President François Hollande declared in 2012 that the age of Françafrique is over, and that henceforth relations between France and Africa will be based on “respect, fairness and solidarity,” recent events in Gabon shed doubt on his promise. When on August 27 the people of Gabon went to the polls to elect a new President along with the chance to end the 49-year old rule of the Bongo clan, French officials watched from the sidelines as incumbent Ali Bongo declared victory despite the fact that the results in his home province displayed a clear “anomaly”. With 99,93% turnout and more than 95% of the votes, the Haut-Ogooué province gave Bongo the 5594 votes needed to declare a narrow victory over his opponent, Jean Ping.
In the post-election mayhem, Bongo shut down the country’s Internet as well as independent TV stations and had the army move in on Ping’s party headquarters. Paris refrained from outright condemning the election results in the face of Bongo’s despotism, merely calling for transparence and restraint. It was only on August 31 that France joined the EU in calling into question the validity of the poll’s results. The Gabon experience is particularly painful for France because not only did the country occupy a central role in Françafrique under the 42-year long leadership of Ali Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo – making Paris’ stance on the issue crucial to regaining stability – but it also shows that France finds it difficult to let go of its Françafrique legacy. Indeed, successive French Presidents have done little to shed France’s neocolonial image, with even Hollande deploying more troops in Africa than ever before.
Naturally, Françafrique comes with multiple pitfalls for the French leadership as it often involves taking sides between incumbent authoritarian heads of state and shady opposition leaders. Since the policies associated with Françafrique tend to inherently favor these repressive and autocratic regimes, France’s involvement in unstable African regions and dealings with untrustworthy despots is essentially a self-inflicted wound. Instead, Paris would benefit from focusing more on building traditional trade ties. It should refrain from intervening in the often opaque and treacherous politics of former colonies. Beyond the strong ties France enjoys with former colonies, there are multiple examples of third party countries that have strong economic ties to France, especially in energy and defense.
In fact, there are signs that the Élysée Palace is increasingly seeking to foster these kinds of relationships as evidenced by a series of economic engagements with countries outside of Françafrique, in an apparent attempt to break with the messages and policies past. Recent deals and agreements are numerous: Not only have French firms agreed to set aside 240 billion Euros for investment in Nigeria and other countries on the content, but France also signed a Declaration of Intent (DoI) with South Africa on boosting economic and investment cooperation; during Hollande’s state visit in April, Egypt and France signed financing and investment agreements worth 2 billion Euros, followed by Egypt purchasing two warships from France this month.
Furthermore, French oil giant Total is making major headway in expanding across Africa, aided by singing a deal with Gulf Africa Petroleum Corporation (GAPCO) that allows Total to acquire oil and gas installations in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Also noteworthy is the support French companies have given emerging African countries. Take Mozambique for example, which in order to safeguard its gas-rich shores from errant pirates and illegal fishing vessels, turned to the French shipyard CNM for help. In 2013, a deal was signed to buy patrol boats with government-backed guarantees through the EMATUM agency.
Although Francois Hollande vowed to bring an end to France’s unsavory influence over the politics of its former colonies in Africa, not much has been done to suggest that Françafrique is indeed coming to an end. In fact, France continues to affect the path of African governments through military interventions and secret elite interactions. However, in order to end being exposed to the drawbacks of such policies – such as suffering from international embarrassment in the case of Gabon’s fraud election – Paris should realize that shifting away from its traditional “suitcase diplomacy” can be both lucrative and mutually beneficial. A plethora of recent economic deals seem to suggest that Paris has begun to change its approach toward Africa. However, to what it extent this will contribute to transforming the Françafrique legacy will still have to stand the test of time.
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