France Laments Mobutu's Fall, Blames US for Lost Clout in Africa


When Africa's third-largest nation changed hands over the weekend, it became the biggest event on the continent since the end of white rule in South Africa.

But for France and Zaire's French-speaking neighbors in Togo, Central African Republic, Congo, and Gabon - which had long backed deposed leader Mobutu Sese Seko - both events signal the same trend: the expansion of Anglophone influence in Africa.

For France, Francophone Africa was the key to its claim to a global role, and Mr. Mobutu was the key to Francophone Africa. France backed him long after other supporters, such as Belgium and the United States, had stepped aside.

The flamboyant, high-living dictator with a town house in Paris, a villa on the French Riviera, and a reported $4 billion in stolen government assets may have been an embarrassment. But to French diplomats, Mobutu was the incontournable or unavoidable leader of the most populous Francophone country in the world, after France. The fall of Mobutu opens the door to what French commentators are calling the "American conquest" of black Africa, aided and abetted by South Africa.

South Africa recognized rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila as president on Sunday.

Ironically, France has few clear interests in the region. The number of French citizens living in Zaire, a former Belgian colony, is a mere 1,500 - trivial, compared with other Francophone countries such as Ivory Coast, with 22,000 French nationals. Mineral interests have been controlled by Belgian or South African firms.

For France, the stake in Zaire and the rest of Francophone Africa is cultural and geopolitical. Francophone Africa's decision to rally to Charles de Gaulle gave the Free French leader credibility in the eyes of Britain and the US in World War II. Later, President De Gaulle's success in creating a community of newly independent French colonies bolstered claims for a global role for France.

Most French commentators insist that the "plot" to overthrow Mobutu was hatched in Washington. They say that the US financed the eight-month rebel blitzkrieg across Zaire in exchange for access to key mining, oil, and telecommunications contracts, and enlisted South Africa to manage diplomatic fallout.

The stream of American businessmen into Zaire in the past few months is reported as confirmation of such a conspiracy.

In addition, recent visits to Africa of Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, as well as pending US legislation to increase investment in Africa, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, are seen as elements of a broad US plan to take France's place in the heart of Africa.

"The Americans backed Kabila, but they're going to be disappointed with the results. The US doesn't realize how complicated it is in Africa.... I'm not sure they will like what they find," says conservative deputy Yves Marchand, who drafted a 1996 study for Prime Minister Alain Jupp of French policy in Africa.

"There is no doubt that South Africa is acting under the exclusive control of the United States. Whatever it claims, the US is in a battle for the conquest of the black continent, and needs a strong diplomatic arm. South Africa needs American aid to put its economic program in place. The deal is clear," commented the Roman Catholic daily Le Croix.

In November 1996, the US opposed French calls for an international force to help refugees fleeing the rebel advance. But this month, the French ambassador sat on the sidelines as South African and American representatives tried to negotiate the terms of a transition of power from Mobutu to Mr. Kabila.

South African President Nelson Mandela figured prominently in the negotiations, and South Africa is the only nation to date that has recognized the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kabila's new name for Zaire.

A negotiated settlement was not found, but when rebels entered Kinshasa, the capital, they found little resistance, especially after Mobutu and his entourage fled. Instead, the rebels were greeted with shouts and cheers as residents welcomed them in.

French diplomats, who had warned of a "bloodbath" if rebels entered the capital without negotiations, issued a terse statement last weekend calling for elections "in the shortest possible time."

BUT as in the fall of major dictators, the disgraced exit from the capital is only the beginning of revelations and recriminations that could go on for decades. On Saturday, Switzerland announced it was impounding all of Mobutu's assets at the request of representatives of Kabila. France says it has yet to receive a similar request.

The Mobutu fallout could also help strengthen bids to curb corruption worldwide. When leaders from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development meet in Paris next week to firm up antibribery resolutions, Mobutu's "kleptocracy" will be at the center of the debate as a cautionary tale.

Between 1970 and 1994, Zaire received some $9 billion in loans or grants, nearly half of which is widely assumed to have been siphoned into Mobutu's accounts.

"We are hoping to find a new government that will be extremely anticorruption, so we will try to get a foot in the door as quickly as possible. Whether we will succeed is too early to see. Combating a culture of corruption in Zaire will be a major, major effort," says Peter Eigen, chairman of the Berlin-based Transparency International, an anticorruption lobby group.

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