Douala, Cameroon — The Mitterrand government's clear intention to bring France's African policy more into line with the stated views of most African states has already improved substantially France's public image on the continent.
At the same time, however, the shift in policy has increasingly put the French Socialists at odds with the new United States administration. And that, in turn, has provided Africans many of whom are already disillusioned by the Reagan African policies, with a striking contrast within the "Western contact group" that seems likely to further erode US standing here.
American officials concede both the divergence of views and the widening gap in public perception between France and the US, although they caution that at least in some instances, public utterances do not reflect private official views.
They also acknowledge that there has been "dialogue" between the two countries on policy differences, particularly those dealing with Namibia and the Libyan presence in Chad.
But while discussions are apt to continue, US and French sources here expect disagreements to remain.
"French-US relations have always had their ups and downs," said one US diplomat in West Africa. "Carter had differences with Giscard [Valery Giscard d'Estaing, former French president], and that will certainly continue, and perhaps increase with Mitterrand."
Whether such differences in African policies hold the threat of a more fundamental rift between the two allies is not at all certain. US sources here were skeptical that it would, and a French diplomat termed such a suggestion "alarmist."
"France would, at all costs, try to avoid a rupture," he said emphatically.
Nevertheless, given the importance of Africa to France, and teh commitment of the two countries' new leaders to fundamentally different approaches to third-world problems, compromise is likely to come hard on a range of issues considered crucial to Africans.
France, for example, has taken a much tougher line than the US on South Africa's reluctance to withdraw from Namibia. In Nigeria earlier this week, Mitterrand's outspoken, and in Africa at least, extremely popular Minister of Cooperation Jean-Pierre Cot, said flatly that the Western contact group, made up of the US, France, Britain, West Germany, and Canada, was "on the brink of rupture." He added that while France would continue to strive for a diplomatic settlement of the Namibian issue, if a concrete solution isn't set in motion "in the next few months," the Namibian people "will have no other recourse but force and violence."
Nor is French policy toward Libya completely in accordance with the extremely tough American stance. While the US has refused to provide aid to the Libyan-backed government in Chad so long as Libyan troops remain in the country, France has broken with the Giscard hard-line policy and promised both funds and technicians to help restore the ravaged capital of Ndjamena.
And Mr. Cot last week in Nigeria also seemed to imply a difference of opinion on the threat posed to Africa by the Qaddafi government. "The Nigerians consider, as do we, that the real capacity for action by Libya is very much less than its proclaimed ambitions," he said.
In fact, since coming to power in May, the French Socialists have staked out positions close to, or identical with, those held by the Organization of African Unity on everything from the law of the seas, and restrictions on the distribution of infant formula to support for a World Bank energy affiliate and guerrillas in Namibia.
The Reagan administration has opposed the majority view on each of those issues. On law of the sea and baby-formula restrictions, it stood virtually alone against not only African governments, but also those of the rest of the world.
France joined in a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the recent South African invasion of Angola. The US declined to criticize the South Africans and vetoed the proposal.
The divergence of positions between two powers that as often as not during the Carter-Giscard years were lumped together by Africans under the rubric of the "industrialized world" has not been lost Africans.
When an attempt earlier this week by the French Embassy in South Africa failed to garner unanimous support among the Western contact group for a protest over South African treatment of "squatters" near Cape Town, the blame was laid by Africans at the US doorstep.
"The French proposition did not receive the expected support, Washington being, according to reliable sources, strongly opposed to the complaint," the government-owned Cameroon Tribune editorialized recently.
"Nevertheless," it continued, "the French initiative, the latest to date, is without precedent in the history of relations between the West and 'the sure ally' that racist South Africa has always been" -- a pointed reference to a widely criticized statement Reagan made early in his administration.
US diplomats concede that French positions -- like the one in South Africa -- reflect genuinely held views of the Mitterand government, and "are not an attempt to make us look bad," as one said.
The reality, however, is that France's public image has improved dramatically as a result of the Socialist support for African concerns, while the US reputation has suffered from a widespread perception here that Washington opposes most of those same demands.
The result has been an increasingly critical response among African organizations and news media to US decisions, even on issues such as military aid to El Salvador, disarmament, and the neutron bomb, which are not major African concerns.
The OAU censured the Reagan administration in June for what it said was the US tilt toward South Africa, and last month condemned American "aggression" against Libya, following the air skirmish in the Mediterranean sea.
State-run newspapers and radios, even in moderate countries, have stepped up criticism of the Reagan administration -- some radio stations have even slipped in an occasional reference to the Reagan "regime," usually a pejorative reserved for the white government in South Africa.
While African criticism of the Reagan administration is certain to continue, it is unlikely to have much impact on US policy. Comparing the Reagan policy to the Carter administration "that wanted to be the good guy, wearing a white hat," a US source said that "now we're saying we're going a certain way, and we don't care if any of you [African governments] come with us."
"Consideration of our national interests is well ahead of concern for African rhetoric," says Philip Christenson, staff member of the US Senate subcommittee on Africa.