Former Colonies Drift From France

TWO events of recent weeks mark the changing circumstances in relations between France and its former colonies in Africa.

The first was symbolic. On Feb. 7, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, late president of the Republic of the Ivory Coast, was laid to rest. His death represents the passing of a long era in which African personalities played roles in France as well as in their own countries. During his long career, Mr. Houphouet-Boigny was a minister of state in governments in Paris, as was another distinguished Francophone African, Leopold Senghor of Senegal.

The second event was more substantive. In January, 13 Francophone countries announced the devaluation of the Communaute Financiere Africaine franc. The move became inevitable when French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur announced last September that, to be eligible for aid, countries in the franc zone would need to accept terms set by the International Monetary Fund. The action reduced the special ties to Paris; the Francophone countries became more vulnerable to the shifts of world markets. Predictions of unrest have already become fact in at least one of the former colonies; the British Broadcasting Corporation reported Feb. 18 that food riots were taking place in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

The French, especially in the early days of decolonization, established close ties to and control over the Francophone countries. France maintained influence through economic aid; security guarantees, sometimes including the presence of French troops; and treaties that tied the new nations economically to France. Socially, France differed from other colonial powers in its relations with its former domains in Africa. Its universities were more open to Africans; through education, the French created a continental elite tied by language and favors to the former mother country. Race was not as significant as in British colonies.

Under President Charles de Gaulle and his immediate successors, one official, Jacques Foccart, tended relations with the African countries through both personal attention to the community's leaders and active diplomacy to maintain exclusive ties between these nations and Paris. Most rulers had estates in France for respite from political pressures at home. For those leaders who preserved French interests, France often tolerated autocratic rule and extravagance. Only rarely, as in the case of the brutal Jean-Bedelle Bokassa of the Central African Republic, did Paris change the leadership. France appeared to find no problem with Houphouet-Boigny's expenditure (reportedly from his private fortune) of hundreds of millions of dollars to construct the basilica at Yamoussoukro, the largest church in the world.

Ivoirians and presumably citizens of other Francophone countries were disappointed that neither the American president nor vice president attended Houphouet-Boigny's burial in Yamoussoukro. But the United States has never paid great attention to Francophone Africa. The French-speaking states were important to US policymakers during the cold war for their anticommunist stance and their frequent support of the US in the United Nations. But for most Americans the former French colonies were terra incognita. African-Americans in particular found the accommodating attitudes of many Francophone leaders, especially to South Africa, unacceptable. Peace Corps volunteers seeking to teach in local languages found that French officials jealously guarded the preeminence of the French language.

French-speaking Africa is likely to become less isolated from the US and the main currents of Africa. As new generations have arisen in Africa and former mother countries have balked at the financial and political burdens of maintaining ties, the practices of the past have become less acceptable. The links of personalities, trade, and treaty obligations that tied the empires together have weakened. With various degrees of abruptness, this also happened to the British, the Portuguese, the Belgians, and the Spanish. Now, somewhat belatedly, it is happening to the French.

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