Gabon leader's death revives debate over France's cozy ties with former colonies

Omar Bongo represented Paris's last old-style dictator in Africa. Two French presidents attended his funeral Tuesday.

Sunday Alamba/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, stand next to former French President Jacques Chirac, right, in front of the coffin of late Gabonese President Omar Bongo at the Presidential Palace in Libreville, Gabon, Tuesday.

The death of Gabonese President Omar Bongo, and the booing of French president Nicolas Sarkozy at his funeral, are both seen here as potent symbols of change in France's controversial relations in its old colonial African sphere.

The question being asked in Paris is – how much change?

At Tuesday's funeral in Libreville, outside Mr. Bongo's estimated $800 million palace, Gabonese protesters shouted "No to France" at the president of the French republic. They also chanted "We want Chinese, we want Chinese" – a nod to China's spreading influence in former French African states.

Bongo was France's last old-style dictator-patriarch in Africa, a French ally and broker helped into office by Charles de Gaulle in 1967. He died in a Barcelona hospital last week.

Bongo personified "la Francafrique." The term came to stand for decades of lucrative French oil and mineral interests in west and central Africa, supported by political kickbacks, slush funds, and influence peddling. It's been an unofficial policy – run more out of the Elysee palace than the foreign ministry – as stated by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was president of France from 1974 to 1981.

Mr. Sarkozy is quoted as saying to reporters about the policy of Francafrique: "That era is over. It's up to the Gabonese to decide what they want."

Francafrique is on the wane and widely decried in Parisian opinion circles, and it faces competition in Africa from China's strategic investments. But the strength of France's financial and political tentacles remains substantial. Sarkozy visited Gabon and Bongo on his first trip to Africa as president in 2007. Shortly after Jean-Marie Bockel, state secretary for cooperation and Francophone affairs, called for the end of Francafrique last year, he was replaced. Bongo is thought to be responsible for his sacking.

'A world of ... useful arrangements'

French columnist Yves Thréard, in the center-right Le Figaro, writes that la Francafrique, as originally coined by Ivory Coast president Felix Houphouët-Bouigny, stood for "a world of amiable services, useful arrangements, bribes. It had its own grandeur ... everyone was happy [and] the incestuous relations lasted until the early '90s, when the Cold War ended."

In the "good old days" of back-scratching amity between France and its African allies in the 1970s, lively Afropop songs emerged about the friendship between the two. Lyrics to tributes like "Welcome President," performed in Libreville, includes the chorus: "The friend of Bongo and the Gabonese/ the friend of Africa and the Africans/ that president is Giscard."

No boos for Chirac

In Africa, Sarkozy is known for his tough immigration policy, and for comments saying France has nothing to apologize for in its colonial past – a contrast to the colonial era contrition policy of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. Mr. Chirac, who also attended Bongo's funeral, as did French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, was cheered by the crowd.

Next up: Sinafrique?

Francafrique-watchers in Paris, like Sharon Courtoux of the nongovernmental organization Survie, which has done extensive work in Rwanda, doesn't see French influence ebbing soon. She argues that French holdings and interests in the former colonies "go far past anything made public."

"Bongo may be gone, but there are many around him to come forward. One day, the conditions of Francafrique will change," she says. "But it will be, I'm sad to say, the Africans that will make these changes. Not France."

Today, Mr. Thréard writes, former colonial states are "hesitating between" a policy of independence and self-interest: "The Africans are ready to make a deal with the highest bidder. If not France, it will be China, the US or another country."

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