Not Your Father’s Francafrique

Not Your Father’s Francafrique

Boubacar Boris Diop offers a worn-out caricature of France’s Africa policy — and, more importantly, of Africa itself ("La Vie en %$!" July/August 2010). By painting France as an all-powerful puppeteer, Diop endorses the cliché of a continent devoid of agency that does not write its own history. Paris certainly had a hand in a few African coups in the distant past, but the idea that Paris is still "pull[ing] the strings from behind the scenes" is ludicrous.

In fact, France’s relationship with Africa has been profoundly transformed in recent decades, and it currently bears little resemblance to the unhealthy relationship of the post-colonial years. The time when France’s economic prosperity depended on its trade with Africa is long gone. Although a few large French groups are still market leaders on the continent, the former African colonies represent a mere 1 percent of French foreign trade. Diop reminds us that there were 60,000 French troops present on the continent after independence. But scarcely 8,000 remain following the closure of France’s permanent bases in the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and, even more recently, Senegal, where France withdrew without discussion when asked to do so.

Instead of recycling tired story lines, Diop should try to answer two quetions. First, why are some African commentators so interested in singling out France? Paris is given responsibility for all the continent’s ills, even though 50 years have passed since independence and African sovereignty has been forcefully demonstrated by countries like Ivory Coast and Senegal. Second, would Africa really be better off with no foreign assistance at all?

Yves Gounin
Author, La France en Afrique
Paris, France

Boubacar Boris Diop replies:
No one is blaming France for all the ills plaguing Africa. Such a wholesale indictment would be an overestimation of France’s current capacities. Outside its former colonies, France is no longer calling the shots in African geopolitics.

The author of this letter doesn’t refute any of the facts mentioned in my article. On the contrary, he confirms their validity when he holds French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s predecessors accountable — without openly saying so, of course. It’s also not true that Sarkozy is putting an end to Francafrique. Yes, the military bases in Dakar and Abidjan were recently closed, but this was for budgetary reasons as part of a process begun by then-President Jacques Chirac.

One need only look at the case of Jean-Christophe Rufin, former president of Action Against Hunger France, who was removed from his post as French ambassador to Senegal after he refused to support President Abdoulaye Wade’s plan to hand over power to his son. As Rufin put it, at least in the early days of Francafrique, French machinations in Africa were meant to further France’s interests, not just prop up powerful dictators. "What we have today are lobbies seeking to advocate for this or that African regime and sell the package to the French authorities," he said.

The author of this spuriously indignant response to my article knows all of this too well because he was an advisor to Wade from 2006 to 2009, an interesting detail he "forgets" to mention.

As for his last question, which comes out of the blue, I won’t respond to it. I simply suggest that he read it again, in the faint hope that he will realize how racist it is.