- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist and former assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to office in 2007, he was heralded for his pledge to finally end the infamous policy of Francafrique — the cozy, post-colonial relationships between Paris and various less-than-savory African leaders. But according to a confidential U.S. Embassy report from 2008, the French president aimed too high, and failed to anticipate all the entrenched interests that Francafrique had wrought:
"In our view, he underestimated the scope of the challenge and overestimated his abilities as a relative outsider bringing his fabled dynamism to the task. He was tone-deaf to some of the dynamics developed over decades of France-Afrique and his pace and rhythm (let alone his policies) did not accord with that of many African counterparts. In saying openly that he wanted to end France-Afrique, Sarkozy inadvertently gave it a new spark of life."
What happened? In short, the embassy analysis concludes, Sarkozy annoyed African leaders with his rhetoric, enraged them with his clamp-down on immigration policy, and then proved that he wasn’t terribly serious about actually abandoning Francafrique with his guestures to big man African leaders.
Take, for example, Sarkozy’s proximity to Gabon’s Omar Bongo, a long-time standard bearer of French-African relations, but also likely a corrupt leader accused of squandering his country’s money on villas in France. When Bongo hosted Sarkozy in 2007, the French leader was welcomed with "festive crowds chanting ‘vive la France, vive Sarkozy, vive l’amitie franco-gabonaise,’" a clear sign that Gabon’s leaders were in no hurry to ditch their cozy relationship with the Elysee. Later, Sarkozy seemed to placate Bongo when he sacked Jean-Marie Bockel, the anti-Francafrique state secretary for cooperation and francophonie.
The leaked cable also makes note of Sarkozy’s "surrender" to Madagascar’s president, Marc Ravalomanana, who reportedly asked the French president to replace his ambassador to the country. The ambassador in question, Gildas Le Lidec, was a renowned diplomat with wide-ranging experience. But "Ravalomanana reportedly thought that Le Lidec was ‘unlucky,’ citing negative developments in other countries that coincided with Le Lidec’s postings," according to the cable. "When asked, most GOF [Government of France] contacts shake their heads and sigh, making muted comments about Sarkozy’s bending backward too far to placate Ravalomanana and ending a veteran public servant’s honorable career by humiliating him."
The embassy also notes that Sarkozy’s diplomatic skills might need some fine tuning:
Sarkozy has in other ways shown himself to be out of step, with his bedside manner needing fine-tuning. Presidential Advisor Remi Marechaux says that when Sarkozy is confident on substance or at ease with an interlocutor, he speaks freely without relying on briefing material. This occasionally causes problems when he strays from "official" policy, with others then steering the discussion back on course. When he is less familiar with an issue or with an interlocutor, he will read talking points verbatim, with little attempt to disguise what he is doing, sometimes thumbing through briefing books looking for information while his interlocutor is speaking.
Vive la Francafrique encore…actions speak louder than words.