Francophone Africa -- some call it more home than Paris
Douala, Cameroon — When Pierre Bonavera left Paris for then French-ruled Madagascar in 1945, ''there was still a notion of empire, of doing something for the good of France, '' he explains.
Now, a year before retirement and 37 years after coming to Francophone Africa , the coffee trader acknowledges that, like the ''notion of empire,'' the idea of a Frenchman seeking his fortune in the former colonies is a relic of history.
''You know, for us, it was a question of career,'' he says, his rapid French indistinguishable from that of a lifelong Parisian. ''But now the expatriates come to pay for a house they have bought (in France), to make as much money as possible in a short time,'' he explains without a hint of reproach.
''I think I'm the last of my generation.''
Not quite. A traveler can still find Frenchmen with similar histories, les anciens colons, scattered throughout the Francophone states, running restaurants , or small businesses (usually hardware or general merchandise stores), or local construction firms.
But while the number of French living in the 13 Francophone black African nations continues to grow - from about 160,000 in 1970 to 250,000 today, according to Le Point magazine - the new breed of expatriates bears little resemblance to their predecessors - who remain one of Africa's enduring enigmas.
''Les anciens, those that came out by themselves, are finished, a dying race, '' concedes Jean-Pierre Peladeau, transit agent for a French textile firm and resident of what an old map on his wall describes as French Equatorial Africa for the past three decades.
''For us, it was a chance for a freer life, to not do what your neighbor was going to do,'' he says. ''The mentality is different now. They (expatriates) come out within the framework of a big corporation, for a limited stay. Oh, they do their job, but the rest of the country could be falling down around them and its their last concern.''
Peladeau, Bonavera, and several other longtime Francophone Africa residents interviewed point to the independence movements that swept the continent in the early 1960s as the beginning of the end of the anciens era. Rising nationalism clashed with the special status of the French in the region.
''Before, you moved between (Francophone) countries a lot,'' says another trader with long experience here. ''Now work permits (not necessary for French before independence) are harder and harder to get.''
A French diplomat agrees: ''A lot of the anciens are leaving, and work contracts are not being renewed.''
It's unlikely that many Africans will mourn their passing. As a rule conservative, often ''Frencher than the French'' in language and custom, the old-time French expatriates were - and still are - viewed by many blacks as the embodiment of the superior attitudes and racial prejudices of the colonial times.
Despite that resentment, and the ample reason for it, Africa remains oftentimes more of a home to the longtime expatriates than does France.
''I know people who have done 35, 36 years in Chad, who have undergone real hardship during the fighting, but who, when the day came to retire, they had tears in their eyes,'' says Peladeau. ''And even some years later, they feel like strangers in their own country.''
So, in spite of the changing politics, many of the anciens choose to stay on in a world they know better, clinging nevertheless to the uniquely French way of life.
A group of nuns and priests in Chad, who sheltered an American just after the 1980 war, when shortages were widespread, managed a meal that included home-cured ham and French wine.