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France in bid to salvage waning ties to Africa

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 2007


Following hard on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao's eight-nation tour of Africa last week and the US announcement that it will create a new military command for Africa, the Franco-African summit in the swanky city of Cannes, France, shows that the scramble for Africa is picking up pace.

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With more than 30 African heads of state and representatives from nearly all of the 53 nations of the continent attending, the 24th Franco-African summit is an attempt to reassure France's former colonies – and any other African countries that are interested – that France will continue to champion African causes on the global stage, such as development aid, debt relief, and greater access to global markets.

But at a time of increasing competition from Chinese, American, Indian, and South African players in search of African resources, France is finding that "la francophonie" – the language, culture, and history it shares with its former colonies – is a harder sell. France is also fending off increased criticism over its tendency to put relations with allied African regimes above good governance.

"France has traditionally had difficulty letting go of its colonies, and has meddled heavily and propped up its former colonies," says Ross Herbert, a political analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. As a result, "Francophone countries in Africa have largely delayed the kinds of political reforms that English-speaking countries did 15 years ago, and so you see a lot of anti-democratic behavior prevailing among their leaders, and corruption, and economic and political decay."

History of the summits

Started nearly 50 years ago as a continuing dialogue with its former French-speaking colonies, the Franco-African summits once were gatherings of newly independent leaders and their former colonial masters. France often promised material and military aid to prop up unelected leaders, some of whom ruled for decades, in return for a continuation of trade relationships that allowed French companies to remain in Africa.

France even created a separate currency for its former colonies – the Communauté Française d'Afrique franc – to facilitate this trade.

Many African analysts are quick to point out that France's faults in Africa are similar to those of most colonial powers, and even other players, such as the US and China. "For the average African, the state is the enemy," says Richard Cornwell, a political analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. "But very often, outside countries, such as France and China, tend to strengthen the state, which is the exact opposite of what the Africans want and need."

While France reduced the number of French bases on the continent from nine in the 1960s to its current three (in Djibouti, Chad, and Senegal), France's bilateral military relationships with many former colonies have left a black mark on its postcolonial history.

Military meddling leaves sour taste

Current examples of this are found in Ivory Coast, where French military battled national forces after the government of President Laurent Gbagbo launched a military raid that killed nine French peacekeepers in 2004. With French forces now at a stalemate in that country, enforcing arms embargos and travel bans, some security experts call this mission "France's little Iraq."