Not Your Father’s Françafrique
France's colonial days in Africa are long past, and it's time African pundits stopped trying to shift blame for the continent's ills.
In "Why is France Still Propping Up Africa’s Dictators?," Boubacar Boris Diop offers a worn-out caricature of France’s Africa policy — and, more importantly, of Africa itself. By painting France as an all-powerful puppeteer, Diop endorses the cliché of a continent devoid of agency, which 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 pulling the strings from behind the scenes is ludicrous. Diop would be hard-pressed to find any role played by France in the recent coups in countries such as Guinea, Mauritania, and even Niger — where, if we are to believe Diop, France’s energy interests are so important. Far from pulling the strings, France is, most of the time, trying to maintain its neutrality and merely keeping the score.
France’s relations with Africa have been profoundly transformed in recent decades, and they currently bear little resemblance to the admittedly unhealthy relationship of the post-colonial years. The time when France’s economic prosperity depended on its trade with Africa is long gone. While a few large French groups are still market leaders on the continent, the franc CFA area — a currency bloc comprised mostly of France’s former colonies in Africa — represents a mere 1 percent of French foreign trade. Diop reminds us that there were 600,000 French troops present after independence. But scarcely 8,000 remain following the closure of France’s permanent bases in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire and, even more recently, in Senegal, where France withdrew without discussion when asked to do so.
Whether the critics of Francafrique like it or not, France’s Africa policy is not permanently frozen in "Foccartism" — the theory and practice of neocolonialism that Charles de Gaulle’s Africa advisor, Jacques Foccart, championed in the 1960s. Foccart has certainly spawned imitators. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor Robert Bourgi, whose support of Ali Bongo in Gabon is mentioned by Diop, is certainly one of those, though Bourgi is an informal advisor to the president who doesn’t represent France; his personal comments on the recent election there were immediately denounced by the French authorities, something Diop fails to mention. France’s policies toward Africa today are led by a new generation of officials whose ethos is that of IMF and EU technocracy, not that of "l’Afrique de Papa," and who have had increasing success in normalizing the France-Africa relationship.
Instead of recycling tired clichés, Diop should try to answer two questions. First, why are some African commentators so interested in singling out France? Paris is supposed to be responsible for all the continent’s ills, even though 50 years have passed since independence and African sovereignty is forcefully demonstrated by countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Second, would Africa really be better off with no foreign assistance at all? In the few cases where France has supposedly been "propping up dictators" in last decade (Côte d’Ivoire and Chad — actually a democratically elected president and, yes, a dictator, respectively), the alternative would have been disastrous chaos for the regions concerned, as and the opposition forces in question were neither more democratic nor better ready to govern than those in power.
Indeed, there is often a "Damned if we do, damned if we don’t" quality to the criticism of France’s policy in Africa — and that very schizophrenia may explain the continuing love-hate relationship between French and Africans.