Overcoming “la Françafrique”: A Tale of two Presidents and two Visions of Africa

Francois Hollande may be yet another one of many French Presidents who have embarked on a mission of bringing an end to “la Françafrique”. He might also be the first one not to fail spectacularly.

Image courtesy of Phares-Balises, © 2007, some rights reserved.

That the myths and modes of perception inherited from the colonial era are difficult to eradicate is not a secret. It was in 2007 that the newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered a speech at the University of Dakar. He solemnly declared his determination to commence a new chapter in Franco-African relations by breaking, once and for all, with what has been termed “la Françafrique”, a ‘netherworld of corrupt oil, arms and trade deals designed to maintain France’s global “sphere of influence”’[1] after the loss of its Empire. Addressing the ‘African youth’, he maintained that ‘Africa’s tragedy is that the African has largely remained outside History. The African peasant, (…), only knows the eternal cycle of time, which is marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this imaginary where everything is always repeated, there is no place for human adventure or for the idea of progress’[2].

Almost exactly five years later his successor, François Hollande, has for his part departed on a mission of inaugurating a new era of Franco-African relations by putting into practice campaign pledge number 58.2 (out of a total of 60), namely that of finally bringing an end to “la Françafrique”.

In light of this, it is hardly surprising that Hollande’s first state visit to Africa, made on the occasion of the 14th Summit of the International Organisation of La Francophonie [3] and held in Kinshasa from October 13th-14th, took him first to Dakar, Senegal.  After all, much damage was to be repaired.

Speaking to the Senegalese Parliament on the 12th of October, Hollande hailed, in a similar vein to Sarkozy’s, the normalisation of Franco-African relations brought about by the end of “la Françafrique”. Henceforth, he declared, ‘envoys, intermediaries and agencies [would] find the doors to the French Presidency and all the ministries closed’[4]. Calling for a partnership based on mutual ‘respect, clarity, and solidarity’[5] alone, however, would have scarcely been original. What really set apart Hollande’s speech from his predecessors’ was his refreshingly unprejudiced vision of Africa. Whilst Sarkozy had evoked what he held to be ‘Africa’s tragedy’[6], Hollande put forward a vision of Africa as the ‘cradle of humanity’, ‘the continent where the very future of the planet will be played out’, on the condition that Africa ‘managed to live democratically and make it a reality, everywhere and for everyone’ all the while overcoming her internal divisions.[7]

Departing from this former vision of Africa, Hollande subsequently set out what he understands by the values that, henceforth, are to determine Franco-African relations.

To him, ‘clarity’ signifies ‘simplicity in our state-to-state relations’[8]. It is in this spirit that he has decided to replace the Ministry of Cooperation, attached to the Quai d’Orsay[9], with the ‘Ministry of Development’. After all, ‘what counts today and what’s expected of France isn’t cooperation, it’s development’[10].  The latter is, in turn, exactly what he understands by ‘solidarity’. As for respect, it should by no account be misunderstood as an excuse for indulgence. According to Hollande, ‘[France and Africa] must tell each other everything: what we think, what we believe, what’s useful’[11]. Furthermore, respect ‘means a crystal clear definition of France’s military presence in Africa, which can continue only in a legal, transparent framework’[12]. But not only that – nothing less than France’s defence policy as a whole is to be revised, if not revolutionised: ‘We (France) don’t need forces stationed in Africa: we need reaction forces, capable of adapting and providing a response rather than merely a presence’[13].

Although these changes in French foreign policy-making augur for a normalisation of Franco-African relations, there remains to be seen whether this re-vision effectively marks the end of “la Françafrique”, the ‘longest scandal of the French Republic’[14], and the beginning of a new era.

The first test of this vision,namely Mali’s[15] appeal to the international community, has not been a long time coming.

Raising the issue in his speech to the Senegalese Parliament, Hollande affirmed yet again his determination of responding positively to Mali’s call for support, all the while formally excluding any form of unilateral action. Rather, the international community, along with ECOWAS and the African Union, must come to the aid of the Malian government. The action must furthermore adhere to two vital criteria: legality and transparency. It is not until the UN Security Council has defined the ‘legal framework to what the Africans themselves decide to initiate’ that the international community, under the aegis of France, can take action[16]. After all, as Hollande has stressed, ‘Africa’s future will be built by strengthening Africans’ ability to handle by themselves the crises the continent experiences’[17].

And yet, however noble this new foreign policy approach may be, putting it into practice gives rise to a number of problems that are anything but easy to resolve. Indeed, if Hollande is a strong advocate of multilateralism, to what extent can he afford to cooperate with states that have, to say the least, an underdeveloped understanding of human rights? Wouldn’t breaking with “la Françafrique” ultimately have to go hand-in-hand with a complete cessation of diplomatic relations with undemocratic governments, notwithstanding the “raison d’Etat”?

A first step, albeit a hesitant one, towards clarifying this somewhat ambiguous policy has at least been taken by Hollande. Scheduled to meet Idriss Deby, the much-contested president of Chad and a vital partner in securing peace in Mali, on the 8th of October, Hollande decided at the last minute to cancel the meeting.

Clearly, the case of Mali points to the potential and limits of Hollande’s new foreign policy approach. While at present it remains to be seen to what extent France is willing to break with “la Françafrique”, one thing is already clear: for the project of breaking with “la Françafrique” to be successful, it is first and foremost indispensable for France to overcome the very myths, modes of perception and representations which have legitimised and justified such practices in the first place. In other words, for a lasting change in foreign policy-making to come about, it is vital to revise what lies at its heart: the vision of the Other. There is good reason to believe that Hollande may have indeed inaugurated a new era of Franco-African relations.

[1] Forsdick and Murphy, eds., Postcolonial Thought in the French-speaking World (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 1

[2] Sarkozy in Forsdick and Murphy, ibid., 3

[3] revitalising La Francophonie is another one of his 60 campaign pledges

[5] ibid.

[6] Sarkozy in Forsdick and Murphy, eds., Postcolonial Thought in the French-speaking World (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 3

[9] French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

[14] François-Xavier Verschave, La Françafrique : Le plus long scandale de la République

[15] for more information on Mali, you may want to read: http://foreignaffairsreview.co.uk/2012/10/mali-al-qaedas-new-stronghold/

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