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Saturday Feature
France strives to recast its role in Africa as the past comes calling
David White

          France has been coming face-to-face with the delayed after-effects of African empire.
The recent explosion of anger among youths from north and west African families in France's suburbs was one example of the past catching up. Another, earlier this year, was the grim toll of a series of fires in Paris buildings overcrowded with African migrants.
At the same time there has been intensified questioning -- and a tentative repositioning -- of France's policy towards Africa.
Fifty years ago French colonial rule held sway over more than a third of the continent. In its aftermath, Africa has been the focus of French attention in the developing world and its overseas military presence. The special character of these was highlighted at a recent Africa-France heads of state meeting in Bamako, capital of Mali.
But in a changing Africa, France is caught in a middle ground between the vestiges of neo-colonial paternalism and new ideas for its military role and "Europeanising" aspects of its relations with the continent.
France's Africa policy has had a bumpy ride, from disengagement in the late 1990s following fierce controversy over its role in Rwanda, where it was exposed to charges of assisting the perpetrators of genocide, to partial re-engagement since President Jacques Chirac won his second term in 2002. In Ivory Coast, after a limited initial response to safeguard its citizens, France's belated intervention left it holding the line in a divided country and exposed it to unprecedented hostility especially after its retaliatory destruction of the government air force in November last year.
Experts in Paris talk of "a certain French hesitancy" at a time when the UK has been taking the lead in pushing the African agenda among the G8 countries.
France is Africa's biggest donor after the US, dedicating 70 per cent of its aid to the continent, compared with Britain's 40 per cent. Its treasury guarantees currency stability for 15 African countries. It has more troops in Africa than any other outside nation - 14,700, from Senegal in the west to the French island of La Réunion in the east, with "pre-positioned" forces at five mainland bases and a permanent naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea.
But the days of unilateral French intervention are gone. "We aren't trying any longer to be the gendarme of Africa," says a defence official. "There are things one can't do, quite simply". While leaving semi-secret defence accords in place, France cannot in future be counted on to intervene except in the event of foreign attack, officials make clear.
France no longer plunges in under its own authority as it did up to the 1980s. Its 4,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast operates alongside United Nations forces and under UN mandate. In Democratic Republic of Congo it took responsibility in 2003 for the European Union's first military mission outside Europe, again with UN authority. Officials say France has no plans "for the moment" to cut forces but wants to reconfigure them to fit the African Union's blueprint for regional peacekeeping brigades. Since 1997 France has switched its emphasis to training and equipping African armies. It is seeking wider EU participation in its Recamp (Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capabilities) programme, and expects agreement at the EU's mid-December summit.
"The idea is to phase in with the AU and propose to Europe to associate itself, so that it isn't perceived as a French military presence in Africa," says a senior Africa expert.
France and Britain have since 1998 been trying to overcome their rivalry, intermittently staging joint ministerial visits. Paris now talks of a "Paris-Brussels London axis". An official explains: "We see the physical and material limits of any national policy in Africa."
Clearly, France still has business, political and linguistic interest at stake. But Africa has evolved since the early years of independence, when French-trained leaders in key former colonies took over where France had left off. A generation of amenable strongmen is dying off. As a result of conflict or mismanagement, there is no jewel left in the French colonial crown.
Philippe Hugon of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, points out that while the French maintain powerful stakes in traditional commodity and trading sectors in French-speaking nations, the bigger strategic focus in oil and mining has shifted to countries such as Nigeria, Angola and South Africa.
The Elf oil company, once a powerful part of the French state machine, has disappeared, mired in scandal and absorbed by the Total group, while Gabon, its traditional bastion, is running out of oil. In Ivory
Coast, long the most successful ex-colony, the French community has shrunk in the past three years from 23,000 to 8,000, mostly dual nationals, and many French small businesses have gone.
The "Africa cell" at the presidential Elysée palace, once the hub of military, secret service and masonic connections, has been pared down to two diplomats and a Bank of France inspector. Officials say France is trying to forge a broader policy towards the continent, based less on special relationships and more reliant on the EU.
A French official reckons Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, is one of the few leaders to understand that the rich world has limited time for building a relationship with Africa to confront the scale of problems that will develop in the next 15-20 years. If it fails, he says, "we will be the ones to regret it".


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