A CENTURY after European powers carved up Africa into their private empires, one country is tenaciously trying to hold onto its influence on a generally forgotten continent.
Despite a political crisis at home, France continues to nurture its 14 former African colonies more than two decades after their independence.
"The influence of France in Africa gives us international prestige," says a French diplomat in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital. Known as "the Paris of Africa," Abidjan retains an unmistakably French cosmopolitanism with its perfume-stocked stores.
"If we can still talk of the grandeur of France and what remains of it, it is to great measure, here," he adds. "Our natural zone of intervention is here."
To be sure, Paris has reduced its once-generous bankrolling of Francophone Africa and its 80 million people. But the new conservative government of President Jacques Chirac still is pouring billions of francs into its French-speaking proxies, trying to deepen links.
The end of the cold war propelled the the big powers to largely turn their attention away from Africa. Portugal has tried - and largely failed - to restore its influence over its five former African colonies.
No regional giants have replaced the influence of the former colonial powers. South Africa prefers quiet diplomacy. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, provides peacekeepers in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but is too occupied with politics at home to do much more.
But across the continent, France maintains centers to promote its culture, especially in language training. In December France announced it would invest $88 million in a third television channel beamed into Africa. It has propped up former colonies economically to balance what it sees as American influence through the programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
France has kept 8,000 of its troops in African nations. Its forces intervened actively in Rwanda in 1994 and in the Comoros after a 1995 coup attempt. In 1994, the French ministry of cooperation spent $1.56 billion in Africa, including technical, military, and financial assistance.
While many of the Francophone African states remain extremely poor - such as Benin and Mali - they would be worse off if they received no support at all from France. Other countries have also benefited directly or indirectly from French assistance, such as Spanish-speaking Equatorial Guinea and Portuguese-speaking Guinea-Bissau.
"You don't see civil wars like [those] in Anglophone Sierra Leone and Liberia," notes a Western diplomat. "France wouldn't allow its former colonies to suffer like that."
MR. CHIRAC emphasized his commitment to the former colonies in a much-publicized tour to West Africa in July. Then on Dec. 4 he left behind a crisis of strikes and demonstrations at home to attend a summit of leaders of 47 French-speaking countries in Benin.
The meeting created a new post of Francophone secretary-general as a first step toward creating a commonwealth to give the loose grouping greater international political visibility, along the same lines as the British Commonwealth.
"France wants a new impetus given to Francophone [issues]," explains Chirac's Francophone Secretary of State Margie Sudre in a magazine interview before the summit. "I hope in particular that our commitment for the future will have one vision and one voice."
On the financial side, however, the trend over the past two years has been for France to decrease its support. In 1994, Paris effectively devalued by half the currencies of its former colonies, which have kept their currencies linked to the franc.
The idea was to make them stand more on their own economic feet and make their exports more competitive and opportunities more attractive to foreign investors.
In the Ivory Coast, the richest of the former French colonies, financial support has gone down. France's contribution to the country's 1995 budget fell some 10 percent, or about $240,000.
While in the 1980s there were about 1,700 white French advisers to the Ivorian government, now there are about 600. The number will drop by 60 yearly.
The new generation of Ivorian elite is just as likely to study in the US as in France. American companies are competing with France in the communications and energy sectors.
But France is still generally favored for contracts. It is hard to see any other country taking France's place, diplomats say. "We're actually very happy France is here," says a diplomat from another Western country.