France Africa relations: Le Grand Divorce?

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Friday, 8 June 2012 14:21

Informal networks and unscrutinised presidential authority have shaped France’s Africa policy for decades. The last time a socialist politician won the presidency – François Mitterrand (1981-1995) – he promised to radically shake up France-Africa relations, as did President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). It is now President François Hollande’s turn to try to push for good governance and to normalise relations with France’s former colonies.

Tricolores, alongside Algerian and Syrian flags, billowed over Place de la Bastille on 6 May, a historic ground zero for global revolutionaries and a happy stamping ground for France’s left. The election of the Socialist candidate to the Elysée raises hopes in Africa too. Perhaps this time there will be a definitive break with the past, an end to the nebulous and opaque net- works of what has become known as Françafrique. Perhaps.

The main charge against France is that it froze the political evolution of its former colonies, even as it gave them independence (see timeline). Proof of the perennity of the system: President Nicolas Sarkozy supported the attempt to shoe horn Karim Wade, son of the increasingly autocratic Abdoulaye Wade, into the Senegalese presidency. France’s foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie offered French police training to the thugs of Presid- ent Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. This attempt by a French minister to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks – by a minister who had been accepting largesse from her Tunisian counter- parts – is the latest stain on France’s conscience.

And this political freeze has led to arrested development. On many metrics, Francophone African countries lag behind their continental peers. French-speaking Africa represents 19% of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product, whereas English-speaking Africa represents around a half – and that is excluding South Africa. Of the 187 countries ranked by the United Nations Development Programme’s human development index, seven of the 10 worst performers are Francophone countries. Burundi, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the last three on that list. France gets 60% of the uranium it uses for its world-beating nuclear industry from Africa – including Niger.


Not everyone agrees. Côte d’ Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara told The Africa Report: “If you take Francophone countries of the CFA franc zone, I think that the situation is actually much better than many Anglophone countries. There has been a real mastering of inflation, which really is a cancer for the poor. There has been strong growth. Perhaps the populations of these countries did not get as fair a share of this growth as they should have.”

Regardless of the debate over how far Francophone Africa has been hamstrung by its former colonial master, the question going forward is can Hollande end Françafrique? During his campaign Hollande claimed, like Sarkozy before him, that there would be a ‘rupture’ with “the old habits of Françafrique”.

But Kader Arif, a Socialist member of the European Parliament and Hollande’s advisor on development mat- ters, says that the change will be radical. “We will get rid of the cellule africaine, place African affairs under the Minister of Foreign Affairs and give parliament anoversightrole.”This is a positive sign: the personalisation of politics under Elysée secretary general Jacques Foccart allowed for clientelism to flourish.

And there are signs that Hollande will be tougher on corruption. Addressing members of Amnesty International and Oxfam, his defence spokesman Jean-Yves Le Drian has said Hollande will impose tighter controls on arms sales. French company Thompson-CSF (now Thales) was involved in a troubled South African arms deal of 1999.

Another of Hollande’s advisors is William Bourdon of Sherpa, a non-govern- mental organisation formed by lawyers that took three Central African lead- ers to court – Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, the late Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville – in March 2007. The investigators behind the ‘biens mal acquis’ affair demand that these presidents account for their endless lists of properties and bank accounts in France. Eva Joly, the 2012 presidential candidate for the Europe Écologie-Les Verts party and the former investigative magistrate who brought down the national oil company Elf in the 1990s, may well receive a role in government.


The ties that bind France’s political elite to the Françafrique system run deep. Eyebrows were raised when Laurent Fabius, a potential future foreign minister for Hollande, made trips to see the presidents of Gabon, Togo and Benin between December 2011 and this February. Contacted for this article, Fabius declined to comment. For Jean-Christophe Rufin, France’s former ambassador to Senegal under Sarkozy, this sent all the wrong signals, “as if the bad old habits have come back”.

“Not at all,” said Arif. “We will not work with just any regime, and it’s not only the candidate [François Hollande]who is saying this but it is a collective expression of will. Those regimes that are not moving in the direction of democracy shouldn’t be frequented.” He went on to explain the importance of opening France to non-traditional partners including South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.

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Kofi Yamgnane, a Franco-Togolese politician now running Africa relations for Hollande, is a connection to the days of the late President François Mitterrand. The last time the Socialists had the presidency, there was a similar great hope for change in Franco-African relations that was quickly dashed. On discovering how Elf showered the French political class with money, Mitterrand did not close down the system but just insisted the Parti Socialiste receive its cut. His son, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, or ‘Papa m’a dit’ (Papa told me) as he came to be known, was good friends with the son of Charles Pasqua, a key player in President Jacques Chirac’s Africa policy. Both sons would be caught up in the Angolagate affair, the illegal sale of arms to Angola.

President Sarkozy did not appear to remove himself from the shadowy net- works of years past. Pascaline Bongo, who ran her father’s finances, sat in the front row at Sarkozy’s investiture as candidate, next to the financiers of his campaign. In late 2011, Mike Jocktane, a Gabonese politician close to the late Bongo, claimed briefcases of Bongo’s cash helped finance Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. On taking office in 2007, Sarkozy wiped 20% off Gabon’s Paris Club debt. Many did not understand how oil-rich and spendthrift Gabon deserved this largesse.

The facilitator Robert Bourgi, who received the Légion d’Honneur from Sarkozy in September 2007, is an exemplar of the shady intermediaries between France and her former colonies. Rufin remembers with horror certain meetings with Sarkozy, Bourgi and the top representative from the Quai d’Orsay “where Sarkozy would ask first the top diplomat what he thought, then got Bourgi’s opinion, as if both weighed the same in determining foreign policy for France”.

Marking another change in the relationship, Bourgi’s clients are Francophone African leaders lobbying to get access in France, rather than just French attempts to direct political life in Africa. A senior diplomatic source, requesting anonymity, related the story of Bourgi fixing a meeting for Karim Wade with Sarkozy, a meeting that was paid for by Wade “and we even know the amount he paid”.

Francophone Africa with its tentacles in the metropole reached its zenith with Bongo, who pushed for and obtained the dismissal of two cooperation and development ministers – Jean-Pierre Cot in 1982, and Jean-Marie Bockel in 2008. Both Cot and Bockel had called for an end to the Françafrique system. Likewise, Ambassador Rufin was pushed out by President Wade, angry at his insistence on transparency and back-room warnings against the rise of Karim Wade.


Under Foccart the strings had been pulled to keep rulers in or out of power according to France’s interest, but strategic disinterest in Africa from the West after the Cold War led these networks to turn more towards self enrichment. As author Stephen Smith wrote: “De Gaulle’s heirs could not resist the temptation to forage for personal gain on the sidelines of the Fifth Republic. When the Gaullist movement split and lost its monopoly on power, the pillage in Africa was democratised. The Foccart network was torn apart, becoming a patchwork of smaller, rival networks: réseaux Pasqua, réseaux Balladur, réseaux Chirac – and, in 1981, réseaux Mitterrand.”

Ultimately this trafficking of influence has been working against France’s interests, according to Anne Lauvergeon, who had run François Mitterrand’s office in the Elysée and subsequently took up a post in France’s state-guided nuclear industry, setting up and heading Areva. In a recently published memoir, she went on the attack: “There really is a parallel system, parallel circuits and, in the end, a parallel republic which was resurgent after the nomination of Henri Proglio [the head of EDF].” Proglio is close to Sarkozy and was one of the 55 people to celebrate Sarkozy’s 2007 election victory in an infamous dinner at Fouquet’s, a prestigious Parisian restaurant.

Lauvergeon said that Claude Guéant – Sarkozy’s advisor who wrote the Pres- ident’s badly received speech on the lack of human progress in Africa in July 2007 – was behind an initiative to undermine Areva’s sale of nuclear reactors to South Africa. Guéant claimed South African businessman Robert Gumede would help France clinch the deals and that Proglio would do all the negotiating, despite Areva’s long history in South Africa, where they helped train the Rainbow Nation’s nuclear regulators. The bid failed.

Alongside the lack of transparency, this highlights another charge against the Sarkozy regime, that of poorly promoting France. Ziad Takkiedine, the millionaire Franco-Lebanese arms dealer who worked as another of France’s intermediaries, this time with Saudi Arabia, criticises the government’s lack of commercial success. “For years we have prostituted France abroad,” he told reporters recently.

Takkiedine is perhaps not a reliable critic – he is under investigation by the tax authorities and suspected of organising the repatriation of massive kickbacks linked to the Karachi affair arms contract with the Pakistani government. The kickbacks are believed to have funded Edouard Balladur’s election campaign in 1995, for whom the spokesman was Nicolas Sarkozy. Takkiedine points out that France did not sign any large contracts in the oil and gas sectors in the Middle East under Sarkozy, whereas the US signed deals worth $468bn over the same period.

How much Françafrique is left? In Côte d’Ivoire, President Ouattara, a close friend to Sarkozy, says none: “We think that these practices are unacceptable, but this is how the world was 20 years ago. Is it still the same today? In any case not with us. Their companies are our largest taxpayers.”Keen observers would have noticed, in all the anti-French uprisings in Côte d’Ivoire, Bouygues and Bolloré’s water, electricity and port interests were left untouched.


Tough new competitors in the shape of US and Chinese oil companies have arrived in France’s African backyard. The Nigerien government forced Areva to renegotiate its deal there in 2010 and the company took a year to do the same in Central African Republic (CAR). New arrivals have stolen a step on France. Dubai’s DP World snatched a contract to manage the port of Dakar from the Bolloré group. In Congo-Brazzaville, the government has just signed agreements for a free trade zone and to build a petroleum port with China’s Shandong Landbridge.

France’s military role is also changing. The end of the Cold War meant the beginning of the end of France’s role as gendarme with ‘pre-positioned forces’ gradually ramped down, despite a late flurry of activity in Chad and CAR in 2008.

Francophone Africa is building new ties, especially in West Africa. The region inherited the imperial rivalry between France and Great Britain. While the 1898 clash at Fashoda in Sudan may have seen the continent’s last full-scale confrontation between British and French soldiers, proxy skirmishes continued. This reached its nadir in Nigeria in 1967, when France ran weapons and money to the secessionist region of Biafra.

It is only in recent decades that a phone call between the Ghanaian and Togolese capitals did not have to transit up from Ghana to London, across to Paris, and back down into Lomé. For all the many conferences that preach the need for Africa to break free of its national boundaries and reap the benefits of integrated markets, African countries do not typically talk across the linguistic divide. President Ouat- tara says: “Previously, there was no political will for talking to Anglophone countries, no determination to say, ‘We must build up our relationship with Nigeria, with Ghana, not just for diplomatic but for economic reasons.’ But this is changing.”

This new dynamic could provide a path out of the sterile connections to the metropole. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan championed Ouattara’s cause during the conflict when former President Laurent Gbagbo tried to steal the 2010 national elections. An Abuja-Abidjan axis, with Ouattara currently head of the Economic Community of West African States, could do much to accelerate integration. This includes the pathfinding work of the Organisation pour l’Harmonisation en Afrique du Droit des Affaires project, whereby Francophone Africa’s commercial law frameworks are slowly being harmonised. This is something that Boris Martor, partner at legal firm Eversheds, believes can precede a deeper economic union by “creating norms that should facilitate investment.” Martor

adds: “And remember that Europe has never managed to harmonise its own commercial law”.

There are more and more examples of cross-border investment across the linguistic divide, although largely restricted to financial institutions. Nigerian banks have invested in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, while Togo’s Ecobank has invested in Kenya and Zambia. Nigerian energy company Oando markets oil in Benin and Togo.


How can Hollande help France stay relevant in this sort of future? Simply being a reliable, predictable partner would help, perhaps something that Hollande, who promises to be a “normal” president, may be good at. Emerging partners in Africa do not always have Africa’s best interests at heart. According to Rufin, Dakar was deeply disappointed in the Chinese, “whose interest it turned out was mostly about eliminating Taiwanese diplomatic representation, while the Indian investment by Mittal that was promised has never materialised. It looks like they just wanted to get their hands on the iron concession to take it out of the market.” Meanwhile, the DP World upgrade of the port is a far cry from the original promises, and rumours abound that Bolloré will be invited back in.

Jean-Michel Severino, former head of the Agence Française de Développement and a member of Hollande’s economic policy team, believes France is well placed to help African countries profit from their demographic dividends and rising wages in China.

Progress is slow, however, on larger structural issues. The CFA franc is pegged to the euro, underwritten by the Banque de France, which in turn requires member countries to keep half of their reserves in the French central bank, another symbol of the control France still exerts. Hollande’s team say that they want to talk about this, but without making any definitive statements on potential change.

On the European Union’s (EU) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which represents 40% of the EU budget and locks many African farmers into poverty, Hollande is also not convincing. At the agricultural show in Paris in February, Hollande said that the CAP budget should be raised “to be as high as possible”.

But politically things could change. In April, Hollande said that he did not believe the Gabonese elections were free and fair. Asked whether this was a problem, the new Gabonese president Ali Ben Bongo told The Africa Report, “I don’t think so. The relationship between Gabon and France is strong, and we respect the choice of the French people as the French also respect the choice of Gabonese people.” But he has yet to speak to Hollande.

Ultimately Hollande will be judged on whether the old ways of doing things perdure – secret and opaque networks, often run through Masonic lodges, that shape the way Francophone Africa evolves. A development seemingly out of a Hollywood script adds grist to the mill for those who fear the strength of the Françafrique networks: Robert Bourgi has an older brother, Albert, with whom he no longer talks and who is said to be interested in playing an intermediary role, this time for the Socialists. Writing in the magazine Jeune Afrique, Christophe Boisbouvier notes that others are coming out of the woodwork: a former ambassador to Chad here, an old minister from Burkina Faso there, all of whom are starting to circle around the presidential palaces of Francophone Africa promising that they have Hollande’s ear.

But the initial signs are encouraging. According to a former minister of a Central African country, briefcases of cash have already been offered to Hollande’s emissaries. So far, none have been accepted.

This article was first published in the June, 2012 edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.


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