Our exasperating ally

The situation in Chad has once more focused American attention on the French role in Africa and on the often difficult relations between the United States and France.

More than once I have heard senior US officials privately express exasperation with actions and policies of our oldest ally. They often had good cause. After the Iraqi revolution in 1958, the French skillfully held on to a quarter of the Iraq Petroleum Company while US and British shares were nationalized. When US and British relations with South Africa were drawing fire from the Africans, the French were South Africa's leading arms supplier; Africans scarcely said a word. France drew back from NATO's military arm, but in effect continued to enjoy the implied protection of the alliance. US administrations have tried unsuccessfully to find common ground with France in one crisis after another: Afghanistan, Central America, the Siberian pipeline.

It is when crises occur in Africa that we find the French role especially important. Our frustration is all the greater when we seem to have such difficulty relating to the French in an area where we feel we have strong and definable common interests. Our problem is that we do not fully understand the essence of the French position in Africa. It has seven important features.

1. Centrality of French interests: In responding to a situation such as Chad, the French actions will be based primarily on a strict interpretation of French interests, in trade, in the protection of its citizens, in the obligations to other states in the area. Some French and Africans may stress the Soviet aspect, but that may be largely for our ears. The French will be more concerned about how their response will be perceived in Paris, in Francophone Africa, in other major African countries, and even in Libya. The tendencies may vary from one French administration to another, but the basic elements remain.

2. Recognition of African sensitivities: From the time de Gaulle, in Brazzaville in 1940, first spoke of the possibility of independence for the French colonies, the French have been perceived as understanding African aspirations and desires. The war in Algeria obviously was an exception, but de Gaulle corrected that in a bold way. Since that time, while preserving an almost mercantile relationship, France has made clear its respect for the sovereignty of these states. The French are much less likely to speak of a ''sphere of influence in Africa'' even though that is what they seek to preserve.

3. Recognition of the individuality of the states: We tend to speak of and think about the states of Africa as if they are all of a type. The French, with their deep immersion in the continent, know the difference between a Chad, an Upper Volta, a Mali, and a Cameroon. A French commentator is less likely to see a domino game in the fall of Chad since he would be aware of the marked differences in strength and unity, for example, between a Chad and a Cameroon.

4. Adaptability to political change: Many of the states of Francophone Africa have undergone coups d'etat, revolutions, and radical change since independence. The pendulum has swung from right to left and back again. The French have not, in most cases, reacted with labels or isolation. They have been able to ride out change, except where there is a bitter civil conflict as there is in Chad. They took steps, also, to deal with the excesses of Bokassa.

5. Consistency of support: The states of Francophone Africa can count on France to a degree that few aid recipients can count on the US. Aid budgets do not rise and fall dramatically, are not subject to embarrassing public interrogations in Congress, or to compounded conditions. The aid is matched by trade policies, embodied in the Lome Convention, that give a degree of stability to African economies. Such constancy provides a powerful inducement to the preservation of the French relationship.

6. Subtle responses: The French are masters of the minimal response. Their reaction in Chad is undoubtedly, in part, a reflection of the concern of the French public; it is also consistent with their desire to avoid dramatic confrontations. Their military response in Chad checks Libya, but does not create an irreversible confrontation between France and Qaddafi.

7. Personal relations: Despite a measure of arrogance that all non-French can feel, the personal relations of the French with their black African allies are an important factor in the strength of that tie. Race has never been a major problem; black elites are received as French. The language and the adaptation to the culture are important, not the color. French presidents have been open to receive visiting African leaders with a frequency and style unknown in the US. Black Africans have found a hospitable environment in France.

There are Americans who also recognize African sensitivities and subtleties, but their advice is often submerged in the consideration of our more global policies. We welcome the French role, but tend to try to redefine it and put it on a broader stage. It is little wonder that we have differences with a nation that looks first to its interests and its traditional friends in a region and only secondarily to more ideological and global causes.

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