Following hard on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao's eight-nation tour of Africa last week and the US announcement that it will create a new military command for Africa, the Franco-African summit in the swanky city of Cannes, France, shows that the scramble for Africa is picking up pace.
With more than 30 African heads of state and representatives from nearly all of the 53 nations of the continent attending, the 24th Franco-African summit is an attempt to reassure France's former colonies – and any other African countries that are interested – that France will continue to champion African causes on the global stage, such as development aid, debt relief, and greater access to global markets.
But at a time of increasing competition from Chinese, American, Indian, and South African players in search of African resources, France is finding that "la francophonie" – the language, culture, and history it shares with its former colonies – is a harder sell. France is also fending off increased criticism over its tendency to put relations with allied African regimes above good governance.
"France has traditionally had difficulty letting go of its colonies, and has meddled heavily and propped up its former colonies," says Ross Herbert, a political analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. As a result, "Francophone countries in Africa have largely delayed the kinds of political reforms that English-speaking countries did 15 years ago, and so you see a lot of anti-democratic behavior prevailing among their leaders, and corruption, and economic and political decay."
Started nearly 50 years ago as a continuing dialogue with its former French-speaking colonies, the Franco-African summits once were gatherings of newly independent leaders and their former colonial masters. France often promised material and military aid to prop up unelected leaders, some of whom ruled for decades, in return for a continuation of trade relationships that allowed French companies to remain in Africa.
France even created a separate currency for its former colonies – the Communauté Française d'Afrique franc – to facilitate this trade.
Many African analysts are quick to point out that France's faults in Africa are similar to those of most colonial powers, and even other players, such as the US and China. "For the average African, the state is the enemy," says Richard Cornwell, a political analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. "But very often, outside countries, such as France and China, tend to strengthen the state, which is the exact opposite of what the Africans want and need."
While France reduced the number of French bases on the continent from nine in the 1960s to its current three (in Djibouti, Chad, and Senegal), France's bilateral military relationships with many former colonies have left a black mark on its postcolonial history.
Current examples of this are found in Ivory Coast, where French military battled national forces after the government of President Laurent Gbagbo launched a military raid that killed nine French peacekeepers in 2004. With French forces now at a stalemate in that country, enforcing arms embargos and travel bans, some security experts call this mission "France's little Iraq."
More troubling to critics of France's role in Africa was France's support of Rwanda's former Hutu-dominated government in the early 1990s, even after evidence that government supporters – on radio, in newspapers, and in churches – were announcing publicly their preparations to wipe out the Tutsi minority in 1994. Even after the genocide began, many experts alleged that France still airlifted military supplies to the government that was behind the killing of Tutsis. More than 800,000 Tutsis were killed.
This past fall, a French judge went so far as to issue international arrest warrants for nine close aides of President Paul Kagame, citing evidence that it was Kagame's Tutsi forces that shot down Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane in 1994.
Mr. Kagame is not among the attendants of the Cannes summit. In fact, Kagame cut diplomatic ties with France in November, and has since applied for membership in the Commonwealth, a group of Britain's former colonies.
African protesters, along with international aid organizations, led protests outside of the Cannes summit this week, and France's ties with illiberal African regimes has become a hot-button topic in the ongoing presidential race to replace President Jacques Chirac.
"By favoring personal friendships to the detriment of the general interest, the presidential practice has tarnished the image of our country, which is associated in African minds with the most questionable regimes on the continent," wrote French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, in an editorial for the Témoignage Chrétien, a Catholic weekly.
French diplomats argue that such criticism betrays the complexities of some of Africa's conflicts and paints an unfair picture of France's overall policy toward Africa.
"Now we are trying to build these summits around the idea of how Africa figures into the balance of the world," says a French diplomat in Africa, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The issues that pertain to most Africans are how you deal with mineral wealth of Africa, to make sure that it is not going into shady deals or funding wars, but instead make sure that a percentage of it gets back to the populations."
On a broader level, Africans may be finding more common ground with their former colonial masters, who at least appear to be voicing their own fears about more immediate concerns, such as America's increasing willingness to go it alone, and topple governments in the name of democracy.
"France is not innocent, both in terms of past colonial history and even in the present time, in places like Ivory Coast and Rwanda," says Peter Kagwanja, director of the democracy and governance programs at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. "But on balance, France seems to be striking a chord with the weaker nations of the world, which feel vulnerable to the democratic militarism, the export of democracy via the gun."
Africans are saying, 'We would like to associate with the demands ... for multilateralism, for a consensus between the weak nations and the strong,' says Mr. Kagwanja. "At this point in history, France is on the right side of the global opinion."