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Cheers for Hollande in Africa

Ruby Pratka, May 22, 2012

When François Hollande's face flashed on their TV screens, the people of Yopougon rose and celebrated as if his presidential victory in France was their own. "It's a big party here," local journalist Stéphane Goué said on election night, from a friend's home in the working-class area of Abidjan, the largest city in Cote d'Ivoire. "Groups of people have come out into the streets, and outside our house we hear horns honking."

Françafrique

Goings-on in the Elysée Palace have interested—and affected—West Africans for decades. In French West Africa, the colonizer was not toppled in an uprising—no riots and protest marches as in British Ghana, no bloody guerilla wars as in Algeria. France divested itself of its African colonies primarily to cut costs, due to the lingering effects of the Second World War and the country's disastrous exit from Indochina in the 1950s. The leaders of the new independent states—Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Chad in the north, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Benin Burkina Faso and Cameroon in the west, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville in the southwest, the Central African Republic in the heart of the continent and the tiny foothold of Djibouti on the eastern coast—were uniformly French-trained, and several had served in the French army during the Second World War. Africa's first post-Independence leaders had deep personal and professional links with France. Before taking the reins of their own countries, Senegal's Lépolod Sédar Senghor had been a minister in the French cabinet, and Ivoirian leader Félix Houphouet-Boigny a senator.

France maintains military bases in Gabon, Chad and Djibouti as well as a smaller military presence in Cote d'Ivoire and in Bangui, the restive capital of the Central African Republic. Defense accords signed with former colonies give the French government priority in buying raw materials such as uranium. Economic links are also strong; 15 of the young states use currencies that were pegged to the French franc and are now linked to the euro. French business conglomerates such as Bouygues, Orange and Bolloré control large portions of the telecommunications and shipping markets in West Africa, and Cote d'Ivoire in particular. "The French government is now an agent of French business interests in Africa," observes André Silver Konan, an Ivoirian journalist who covers West African politics for the continent-wide newsmagazine Jeune Afrique.

It was Houphouet-Boigny, who ruled Cote d'Ivoire for 30 years with several French bureaucrats among his cabinet ministers, who coined the term "Françafrique" to describe the friendly relations between France and its former African empire.

Houphouet-Boigny used the word in a positive sense, but it didn't remain that way. In the current French media, the word evokes a shadowy network of personal friendships and money transfers that influence policy on both sides of the Atlantic. "I give you your budget; I can do what I want," former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing apparently told Jean-Bédel Bokassa. D'Estaing had helped finance Bokassa's grandiose wedding ceremony—worth one-fourth of the annual budget of the country—before growing exasperated with his protegé's wasteful spending and flirtation with Muammar Gaddafi—and throwing French military support behind a 1979 student uprising that brought down the Bokassa regime. In France, political campaigns were financed by oil and even aid money that African leaders—particularly longtime Gabonese President Omar Bongo—skim off and send back to Paris, therefore manipulating French policy in their own way.

Since François Mitterand in 1990, French presidents have tried to distance themselves from the "old boys' club" of "occult networks" of Françafrique. However, it was on Mitterrand's watch that the biggest disaster of Françafrique occurred: a bungled military intervention in Rwanda—a former Belgian colony whose president had worked closely with France— that allowed some perpetrators of the 1994 genocide to escape across the Congolese border.

Pyromaniac

Early in his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy declared his desire to "break with" Françafrique. But five years later, many Africans don't see it that way.

Sarkozy "is a pyromaniac," says Chaibou Boubacar, editor-in-chief of Alternative Espaces Citoyens magazine"Based on a survey I did yesterday in the capital [Niamey, Niger], we're glad to be rid of him." The fires to which Boubacar alludes are the French interventions in Cote d'Ivoire and Libya.

"Our president [Mahamadou Issoufou] has traveled to Paris 14 times in a little more than a year," adds a resident of Niamey interviewed by Jeune Afrique. "What does he need to go there so often for? France needs to give us our independence back."

After a close, disputed election in Cote d'Ivoire in fall 2010, socialist incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo was widely believed to have lost but refused to give up power. After several months of slow-burning civil conflict, a French military intervention resulted in Gbagbo's arrest and installed his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, as president. Ouattara, a former IMF economist, is a friend and ideological ally of Sarkozy. His party, Rassemblement des Republicains, even signed a collaboration accord with Sarkozy's Unis pour un Mouvement Populaire shortly before the election.

"It's true that Hollande is a socialist, like Gbagbo, but people here are just happy to see Ouattara's puppet-master gone," says Goué.

France's support of NATO intervention in Libya also left a bad taste in the mouths of many Africans. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had invested millions in schools, mosques and infrastructure across Africa, in the name of Islam and his dream of a "United States of Africa."

"Of course [Gaddafi] was a dictator and a terrorist," Stéphane Goué says. "But his assassination was a bad thing for all of us. He had helped us solve a lot of international crises, especially in Niger and in Mali."

In Mali, many blame France for an escalating internal crisis. Migrants who had worked in Cote d'Ivoire and pro-Gaddafi fighters fleeing Libya brought their desperation, and their weapons, to Mali. Many veterans of the Libyan conflict joined the Tuareg separatist militias who have since torn Mali in two.

Sarkozy's diplomatic record in Africa has not been all bad. He was the first French president to receive post-genocide Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, turning the page on nearly 20 years of bad blood. Nor is Hollande everything Africa has been looking for. It is not clear that he would have acted any differently given the situations in Cote d'Ivoire and Libya, and he plans to reduce French reliance on nuclear energy—a disappointment for uranium-exporting Niger.

However, Sarkozy has alienated many Africans with his occasionally anti-immigrant rhetoric and what some see as a patronizing attitude toward the former empire—epitomized in a 2007 speech in Dakar urging a university audience to forgive the "mistakes" of well-intentioned colonists and calling African farmers "peasants."

With Hollande, African leaders expect "more partnership and less condescension," in the words of a Congolese government spokesperson. Time will tell if they get it.

Since President Hollande's swearing-in, it appears that France may be on the road to a new kind of presence in Africa. As Sarkozy left office, it became public that his government had renegotiated post-colonial defense accords in Africa, removing France's prerogative to intervene in case of civil unrest. One of Hollande's first acts was to rename the Ministry of Cooperation (which largely handled relations with the ex-empire from Charles de Gaulle's time) the Ministry of Cooperation and Development. In an interview with Jeune Afrique, Hollande expressed his government's plan to "trust Africa to resolve the questions which concern them directly."

While Hollande himself has little experience in Africa, his newly appointed Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius knows Ouattara and has met with the presidents of Togo, Gabon and Benin. Fabius has said he would like to "finish with the coups, the announcements that are not followed up and all the convolutedness of Françafrique."

Hollande "gave us this hope, and now we are going to take him at his word," Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou told the French daily Libération.

Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. She speaks English, Russian, French and Quebecois. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France, but her heart and mind are in East Africa.

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