"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
I recently finished Jean-Pierre Bat’s, “Le syndrome Foccart : La politique française en Afrique, de 1959 à nos jours”. A big book, covering France’s politics and policies with regards to Africa – in particular its former colonies. The book is a great read, providing a good overall framework but also a lot of interesting insights into specific events and issues. The main threads are the influence and important role of Jacques Foccart, who was a close confident to Charles de Gaulle and his “Mr. Africa”, the importance of the former colonies to French presidency, and how relevant the concept of “Françafrique” is as a framework to look at France’s policies and politics.
It’s difficult to summarize 50+ years of history, so I won’t even attempt to do so here. A few interesting points stood out for me. First of all, the network of former colonies has been important to France – and in particular the French presidents – as a means to ensure France’s international stature. As a result, French presidents have invested a lot of personal resources into the relationships with the leadership in these countries. Jacques Foccart was unique in this, as he was personally close to de Gaulle, important in the French center-right political (party) network, had close links to the secret service (having been employed by them) and had a strong relationship with African elites from the colonial times. A further consequence of this was the tradition of a strong “Africa” cell in the presidency, for a long time circumventing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Basically, this was only redressed in the late 1990’s.
A second noteworthy element is how unclear it is that this (supposedly) close relationship with these African countries does not seem to have really improved France’s decisions. Historically, it is hard to see how support for dictators like Bokassa or the Habyarimana regime, in particularly militarily, was ethically ever a good idea (even at the moment). And the support of secessionist movements during the Biafra war or civil wars in Zaire – merely with the goal of ensuring French regional influence – is extremely harsh. But even from simply a “realpolitik” perspective, some serious errors were made (one example is the transition in Ivory Coast after the death of Houphoet-Boigny).
A third (and for now final) noteworthy point is the lack of focus in much of France’s policies and politics in this area, which makes it hard to say there is a “Françafrique” concept. France’s interests have long been divided between different state actors (e.g. Ministers, security services, presidency, political parties, etc..) and private actors (e.g. private companies), and overall global movements with regards to Africa and development. Another strong influence has been the “Europeanization” of French politics – including the relationship with Africa.
The importance of France here in Niger is clear. The French embassy is very big, the French international school is the largest foreign school here, and the French army is present (including with fighter jets). At the same time, the growing role of other actors is also evident. The US embassy is probably as large as that of France, and the US has at least one drone base in the country (there are rumors of a second one being run by the CIA). A lot of infrastructure is being built by other actors such as Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia and China. The latter also have gotten into more strategic sectors that long were a French monopoly, such as oil and possibly uranium. Where does this leave France? And where does this leave Niger?
5.4.2019, Niamey, Niger.
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.