The Sarkozy technique

Kaye Whiteman

04 March 2010




africaI make no apology for returning again to the subject of France in Africa. Last week, I brought it in to my reminiscences about coups in Niger Republic, if only to reflect on changes since the bad old days of unmitigated skulduggery.

But we have recently had some serious pieces of news to assist students of La Françafrique in building a picture of France’s sometimes contradictory African policy in the Sarkozy era. The key emblematic moment, which many newspapers featured, came from the visit of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to Rwanda. Pictures of the visit showed the diminutive ‘Sarko’ next to lanky President Paul Kagamé, but it was the symbolism of the occasion, not the photograph which impressed.

For this was intended to be the reconciliation of the two countries after 16 years of hostilities, triggered by France’s still controversial role in the genocide of 1994 still reverberates down the years. Thus, although Sarkozy did not actually apologise for the French role in the genocide, he admitted that the French had made “grave errors of appreciation,” that there had been a certain “blindness” about the support being given to the government that had ended up committing the genocide; and that the French military intervention, called Opération Turquoise had been too late and “without doubt too little.”

Although this was still not a total admission of wrong-doing, it still went a lot further than in Lisbon in 2007 (at the Africa-Europe Summit), when he had taken shelter behind the “weaknesses and errors” of the international community, France included.

French reporters noted that when he visited the genocide memorial, he passed rapidly in front of a photo of French troops alongside machete-wielding Hutu militia. For, to spell out the “grave errors,” it was not just the training given to the militia (Interhamwe) that caused criticism, but the fact that Opération Turquoise was not only officially peace-keeping, but gave cover to the retreating criminals of the same Interhamwe, who since they fled to the Congo have been a running sore. Exactly why it was necessary to make these concessions to Rwanda in order to resume relations, broken by Rwanda since the past three years, is a mystery. Can it really be that France is so keen not to let Rwanda out of the francophone sphere? One notes wonderingly that last November Rwanda entered the Commonwealth and next week he will be in London raising the flag of Rwanda at the organisation’s headquarters and guest of honour there at the Commonwealth Day reception.

But does this mean that at heart France’s policies in Africa remain unchanged, with cosmetic variations dictated by circumstances? France’s still opaque implication in the genocide, was a key reason for the policy change from regular unilateral interventionism, to seeking cover from either the UN (in the case of Côte D’Ivoire) or the EU (in Congo, Chad and Central African Republic).

What has been sustained has been the French network of defence agreements and bases unique among any external powers in Africa. In this, it parallels the CFA franc, which linked to the Euro is still the sinews of France’s special relationship. President Sarkozy, in Cape Town in 2008, promised a new deal on defence that was supposed to break with the past, and has gone ahead to promote a transparent defence relationship with new accords currently being signed with several countries.

If there are now no secret clauses relating to propping up regimes with security problems, the bases are to be maintained, if reduced. It remains to be seen how this will work out in practice. The development must be seen in the context of the increased US presence in Africa (reluctance to accommodate Africom notwithstanding).

This presence can be seen notably in Djibouti, and in the Sahel, and is an indication of the new pressures on African countries in view of the global prosecution of the ‘war on terror,’ which seems to have survived in the Obama era. Interestingly, French policy evolution has been the decision to keep the base in Gabon originally earmarked for closure, while the base in Senegal is to be reduced to a ‘platform.’

Gabon has always been a key country of La Françafrique, and to see Sarkozy making a fuss of it causes one to question how much has changed. The dynastic succession of Ali Bongo to the Gabonese presidency after the death of his father last year has scotched the chances of any real change, despite initial reformist measures. It is thus hard not to come to the conclusion that each French president since Charles de Gaulle has found the African clothes the General had designed for himself, too irresistible not to wear, however much there may have been the urge to be an agent of change, a moderniser.

Sarkozy, however nimble an operator he may be, is still fundamentally operating the Gaullist system in Africa that has, with modification and reforms, operated for the past 50 years.

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