PARIS — A RECENT front-page cartoon in the Paris daily Le Monde shows the continent of Africa strapped between two wooden poles, ready to be carried in the manner of African bushmen. But off to the side stands French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, who quips, ``Too heavy to carry!''
A French retreat from Africa is indeed how analysts are interpreting the devaluation earlier this month of the CFA (Communaute Financiere Africaine) franc, the currency of 13 former French colonies in Africa.
After 30 years of propping up a ``special relationship'' with its independent former colonies by guaranteeing the CFA franc's stability against the French franc, Premier Balladur has sent a clear signal by finally requiring a devaluation that many international economists had recommended for years.
First, France is saying it has more important preoccupations than preserving a zone of influence in Africa - primarily, its place in a unified Europe. And second, it no longer intends to carry the burden of French-speaking Africa alone, especially when the return has grown so slim.
The devaluation ``marks a historic turn for French-African relations,'' says Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a specialist in French affairs at the French Institute for International Relations here.
``The franc zone and its operating rules ... constituted the key element of French African policy,'' add Albert Bourgi and Christian Casteran, Africa specialists writing recently in the newspaper Liberation. ``The spirit of cooperation constructed by General de Gaulle, as part of the grand ambition of France, is hardly found in the heavy sacrifices now asked of Africa.''
The 50 percent devaluation of the CFA franc, decided in Dakar, Senegal, on Jan. 11, came as a shock to African leaders and elite classes who had grown dependent on the French guarantee.
But officials and analysts here say the writing had been on the wall since last September, when Balladur informed franc-zone leaders that France would no longer aid countries that had not concluded restructuring agreements with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Balladur's message was crystal clear, since the World Bank and IMF had for years refused to develop any aid programs with the franc-zone countries unless the CFA franc was devalued.
Still, this month's devaluation, although welcomed in international circles as an impetus to economic growth in Africa, has caused deep divisions among French policymakers.
For some, the move is one more sign of the end of the ``French difference'' in international affairs that France cultivated in the cold war period. And if the devaluation results in social chaos, France will be blamed.
For others, the devaluation is a needed charge for a degenerated relationship, where France was little more than the paternalistic financier of corrupt, wasteful, and autocratic regimes.
``What we're seeing is the result of a slow deterioration in economic, financial, political, and social conditions since the post- colonial arrangement of 1960,'' Mr. Moreau-Defarges says. The system provided stability for a time, he adds, but ended up working against the African people over the last decade as living standards plummeted.
Even Mssrs. Bourgi and Casteran, while critical of France's handling of the devaluation, believe it will allow a more ``responsible'' Francophone Africa to develop more balanced internation- al relationships.
French leaders now say the continent's best chance for pulling out of its disastrous state lies in regional cooperation. And that, they believe increasingly, hinges on a successful transition in South Africa, a conviction behind the recent visit of Foreign Minister Alain Juppe to Johannesburg.
``South Africa is now considered Africa's hope or despair,'' Moreau-Defarges says. ``If it succeeds in its transition, then there's a possibility for development. If not, the picture is bleak.''