This week, French President François Hollande meets with three African presidents: Guinean Alpha Condé, Gabonese Ali Bongo and Senegal's Macky Sall. Hollande will use the occasion to set the tone for France’s new African policy. It is a striking moment in French diplomacy, as the ties between France and Africa – especially francophone Africa – are deep and rooted in a shared colonial history.
The links between France and Africa have given place to much speculation, of which much is based on true stories. This speculation reflects the idea that a system has been set in place to defend France’s interests on the continent. The system is commonly referred to as “Françafrique”, after the expression coined in 1955 by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire. He was then describing the need for his country to maintain close ties with France even after de-colonization. With François-Xavier Verschave's book, (La Françafrique, The Longest Scandal of the Republic (La Françafrique, Le plus long scandale de la République), it took a more negative undertone, and described a network of clientelism promoted by France in Africa, in order to defend its interests, while African leaders would fund French politics.
French association Survie lobbies against "Françafrique"
Confirming the “special place” Africa holds in French diplomacy, starting in 1958, French African policy was then almost exclusively shaped at the “African cell” of the presidential palace, rather than at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Newly elected French President François Hollande
Before his election, François Hollande promised he would change France’s existing African policy. In his “60 commitments for France” (“60 engagements pour la France”), Hollande promised in the point 58 that he would break with the ‘Françafrique’, "by proposing a relationship based on equality, confidence, and solidarity. I will revive Francophonie. I will take the necessary measures to accompany our compatriots residing outside France, notably for access to schooling, depending on their revenue.” To prove his good will, he also said he would get rid of the infamous “African cell.”
In fact, the unit was already suppressed by Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and replaced by a “Diplomatic Cell”. It is to be noted that Sarkozy, during a speech pronounced in Cotonou in 2006 , had called for a “new relationship, healthier, uninhibited, balanced, rid of the scoria of the past.”
Evoking and envisioning new ties between France and its African partners is a favorite theme in French foreign policy discourse. In fact, it is anything but new.
President François Mitterrand, Hollande’s mentor, initiated the idea of novelty in the Franco-African relationship more than thirty years ago, upon his election in 1981. However, the structure, operating from the Elysée “African cell” was maintained, even if Mitterrand changed its advisors. The evidence shows that, quite on the contrary, the relationship was pursued very much along traditional lines. The same thing happened when Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were elected.
The changing dynamics between France and Gabon, one of France’s closest partners, gives an idea of the path that French diplomacy towards Africa is taking. Omar Bongo Odimba ruled this small oil-producing country from 1967 until his death in 2009 - two French presidents attended his funerals. For many analysts, his death represented the end of the personal and exclusive system that is “Françafrique”.
Omar Bongo and Nicolas Sarkozy
In fact, although his son, Ali Bongo, succeeded him, Gabon is now seeking to multiply its international partnerships. And yes, Gabon still keeps a close relationship with France, based on mutual interests – oil for France, revenue for Gabon. But the relationship is not as strong as it used to be.
So, is there truly a new era of Franco-African relations on the way?
Today, France still plays an important role in Africa. On a continental scale, it is the second biggest investor after the United States. Faced with new challengers such as China, France tries to adapt its policies to the new reality of a courted continent.
Thus, it is not yet clear whether it is political will from the French president that is at the root of such changes. Rather, new geopolitical dynamics, with the rise of new partners seem to be the deterining factor.
Africa stands at a crossroads. From 1950 – when France’s politics towards independent African states was defined - to 2050, estimates say its population will have been multiplied tenfold. The changes in demographics will affect land occupation, urbanization, economies and development. The stakes of the changes are high, and affects de facto the power balance between now sought after African countries and their traditional partners.
New dynamics on the continent suggest that the power balance between France and its African partners is shifting, in favor of the African states. Instead, new investors and partners court Francophone states. Thus, France cannot afford to impose its policies and solely act towards its interests to the detriment of populations and ruling leaders in Africa.
However, does this change mean that France will act in a more democratic manner?
It seems that, on the contrary, through the preservation of its actual position, France will promote some existing regimes, which it will try to seduce through new aid packages. France will not dictate policies nor choose leaders, but does not seem to be an actor of change, particularly in oil or uranium-rich states. In a way, relations will be normalized: less personal and less exclusive, they will promote French interests and be based on seduction, rather than coercion.
France’s discrete voice in the Malian crisis – where the north of the country fell to the hands of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb affiliated Tuareg rebels – seems to be a clear sign of this de facto change.
(Photo: cover page © The Global Journal)
(Photo © DR)
 In French: "Je romprai avec la « Françafrique », en proposant une relation fondée sur l’égalité, la confiance et la solidarité. Je relancerai la francophonie. Je prendrai les mesures nécessaires pour accompagner nos compatriotes établis hors de France, notamment en matière d’enseignement, en fonction de leurs revenus."
 In French: "Une relation nouvelle, assainie, décomplexée, équilibrée, débarassée des scories du passé."