President Francois Hollande came to office promising to overhaul France’s relations with Africa to shun strongmen leaders and focus more on partnerships and human rights.
As he leaves for a three-country swing through West Africa, he’s back to playing a more traditional French role on the continent: pushing trade and overseeing military interventions.
In the Ivory Coast tomorrow, Hollande is bringing a delegation of businessmen to a country where the economy is booming and French companies fear they’re losing out to foreign rivals. Over the following two days in Niger and Chad, he’ll discuss security issues and visit military bases used by French forces to combat Islamist militants across the Sahara. Within the past year, Hollande has visited Mali and Central African Republic where French forces are in action.
“For France, Africa is not a continent like any another and never will be,” said Benjamin Auge, associate fellow at the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations. “They can’t have the same relations as elsewhere. It took Hollande two years to understand that, and now he deals closely with leaders he once snubbed.”
After handing independence to its African colonies in the early 1960s, successive French presidents kept cozy ties with leaders of countries on the continent, not hesitating to send in troops to protect or install compliant regimes.
Both Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to do away with what was called Francafrique, before partly backtracking. With about 27 billion euros ($37 billion) in exports and about the same in imports from the continent, and with the lives of French troops at stake, changing track in Africa has not been easy.
On his first presidential trip to Africa in October 2012, Hollande told the Senegalese National Assembly that “the era of Francafrique has evolved. There is France and there is Africa. There is a partnership founded on respect, clarity and solidarity.”
In a glacial meeting in Kinshasa on the same trip, he criticized Congo for human rights abuses and said democracy was a condition for good relations with France.
After France rushed troops to Mali in January 2013 to prevent Islamic militants taking the capital and to the Central African Republic in December to prevent sectarian killings, Hollande repaired relations with Congo and other African strongmen, seeking their support and manpower for France’s missions. Chad President Idriss Deby, whose troops fought side by side with French special forces in Mali, has ruled his country since taking power in a 1990 coup.
“Before he was elected President Hollande had no experience of Africa and knew little about the continent,” said Tony Chafer, a professor at Portsmouth University in Britain who has written several books on French relations with Africa. “Yet Africa rapidly moved up his policy agenda.”
The first French intervention in Africa after independence was in 1964, when parachutists blocked an attempted coup in Gabon. Since 1990, French armed forces have been involved in more than 20 African operations, according to a Feb. 4 report by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
There have been some changes in France’s policy toward Africa. Unlike former presidents, Hollande has no “Africa cell” at the presidential palace, letting the Foreign Ministry handle day-to-day relations with African countries. Sarkozy made a point of visiting English and Portuguese speaking African countries to widen France’s alliances.
Hollande will meet opposition leaders in the Ivory Coast, although French officials haven’t said if Hollande will raise human rights issues with President Alassane Ouattara. France will offer 25 million euros to help improve the country’s justice system.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say Ouattara’s government has imprisoned supporters of Former President Laurent Gbagbo without trial, while not pursuing serious abuses by militias that brought Ouattara to power in April 2011, with French military help. Gbagbo had refused to recognize Ouattara’s victory in November 2010 elections.
Since that crisis, the country’s economy expanded 9.8 percent in 2012, 7.8 percent in 2013, and will grow another 7.8 percent this year, according to IHS Global Insights. French billionaire Vincent Bollore’s Bollore Africa Logistics runs Abidjan port; the national phone company Ivory Coast Telecom is part of Paris-based Orange SA; Societe Generale SA owns the largest bank and Bouygues SA is building a bridge across Abidjan’s lagoon.
Some of that French business dominance is slipping away. In 2012, Alstom SA lost out to Korea’s Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co. Ltd. and Britain’s Globeleq to expand the Azito power plant near Abidjan.
“French companies feel they don’t always have the same backing that their Chinese competitors have,” said Christoph Wille, Africa analyst at London-based Control Risks.
While the Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa exporter, Wille says mining, construction and the service industry are likely to be the most promising fields for investment.
Hollande’s delegation to Abidjan includes 39 representatives of companies and business associations, including Alstom, builders Vinci SA, and urban services companies Suez Environnement Co. and Veolia Environnement SA.
In Niger, Hollande will visit the 101 Airbase, where 300 French military personnel command surveillance flights over the Sahel, the southern rim of the Sahara under threat from the al-Qaeda affiliate that almost took over Mali. In Chad, he’ll visit the Kossei airbase, a regional command center for the French military which is in the process of transforming its Mali mission into a 3,000-strong invention force across the Sahel.
“Africa, unlike the Middle East where the U.S. takes the lead, is a region where France takes the initiative,” said Chafer. “In this part of the world France does not depend on alliances with other western powers, but with African leaders and institutions. It has relative autonomy.”