The election of a socialist French President has raised hopes both in France and in Africa to put an end to the old paternalistic and neo-colonial political and business networks dubbed as Françafrique. Former President Sarkozy was close to transnational companies such as the logistics giant Bolloré, which manages a number of African railways and harbours, but also was a master of blunder. In a speech delivered in Dakar in 2007 he claimed that “the African man has never really entered history” provoking an outcry across the continent.
Against this background, there are indications that Hollande’s campaign slogan le changement c’est maintenant (change is now) may also apply to France’s African policy. Only ten days after the election, Hollande appointed an unorthodox new Development Cooperation Minister: Pascal Canfin, a 37 years old journalist. Canfin was the adviser of Eva Joly, the presidential candidate for the Greens who became known for her investigations into corruption and money laundering networks linked with the case of the French oil company Elf. Canfin is also a member of a pro-transparency NGO called Finance Watch.
Before his election, during a press conference held in Paris in April, François Hollande also claimed that he would put an end to “some practices of the French-African relations”. Several observers stressed that one of his advisers on human rights issues is William Bourdon, a lawyer who became famous by pushing ahead governance issues in French courts and more particularly during the “inappropriately acquired properties” trial against Presidents Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Ali Bongo of Gabon and Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, which is currently taking place in Paris. Eventually, François Hollande also promised the suppression of the so-called “African cell of the Élysée”, the Africa unit at the President’s Office which is considered by diplomats as a secretive body which is not under parliament’s control and that has been acting in parallel to the official Foreign Affaires ministry. The cell is suspected of being involved in several dirty tricks during the past presidencies.
According to the Paris-based newsletter Lettre du Continent, several African heads of states should be quite happy about Hollande’s victory. Guinea-Conakry’s President Alpha Condé, who is also member of the International Socialist, tops the list. But Conde may asked to prove his democratic credentials by organizing parliamentary elections in a near future. His colleague, Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, who is also a socialist comrade, is in principle a natural ally for the new French President. However, interests on the share of the uranium bonanza may make it difficult to reconcile between France and Niger. By contrast, the President of the Central-African Republic, François Bozize may be quite upset by the intense lobbying made in Paris just before the election by one of his main opponents, Martin Ziguele.
The change may not be as radical as expected by some African opposition circles. Indeed, the new Development Minister is under the orders of the Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who, as a former Prime Minister of the late François Mitterrand (1984) is seen as a much more pragmatic figure, more inclined towards realpolitik showed by his visit to President Ali Bongo in Libreville last February.
Critics of the Survie Paris-based NGO which promotes the abolition of neo-colonial ties between France and Africa also remind that during François Mitterrand’s presidency (1981-1995) and later when Socialist Lionel Jospin was Prime Minister (1997-2002), Françafrique networks remain untouched. Moreover, François Mitterrand did not only preserve this system but, under his rule, weapons were supplied to the Rwandan interim government which was orchestrating the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Now, Survie gives the benefit of the doubt to François Hollande who belongs to another generation, although the French NGO stresses that the French Socialist Party supported two military interventions in Africa in 2011: one to oust Laurent Gbagbo, who failed to recognise Alassane Ouattara’s victory at the presidential election of November 2010 in Côte d’Ivoire, and the other to topple Muammar Kaddafi in the context of a NATO operation endorsed by the UN, which was officially supposed to protect Libyan civilians from air bombings.
In Survie’s opinion, François Hollande has an opportunity to show his goodwill by declassifying documents which may help to unveil French involvement in a number of African crises, including the assassination of Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso in 1987 and the coup by his former comrade Blaise Compaoré. The future of the link between the CFA Franc zone and the euro – which serves the interest of French and other European exporters and of the African elites more than the competitiveness of African economies – will be another test of Hollande’s will to bring in some changes in this relationship. The key but yet unanswered question is whether France will henceforth accept a transfer of decisions and currency reserves from the French Treasury to the regional Banque Centrale des États d’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) and Banque Centrale des États d’Afrique Centrale (BCEAC). Likewise, Survie is curious to see whether or not changes will occur in the relationship between the uranium giant Areva, whose main shareholder is the French state, and countries like Niger, where uranium exploitation has led to radioactive contamination and has not sufficiently contributed to national development. On security, the acid test will be the decision to maintain or close the French military bases of Djibouti, N’Djamena (Chad) and Libreville (Gabon).
But the introduction of such changes is problematic since France and its African partners have to face simultaneously a number of serious challenges. The most important is the new situation that has aroused from the destabilization of the Sahel region which followed the fall of Kaddafi in Libya and the dissemination throughout the area of mercenaries of different origins. This situation has contributed to aggravate the current crisis in Mali, where an unholy alliance of Salafist and Tuareg pro-independence groups is in control of the North. This situation which threatens to spread to neighbouring states poses a political challenge to François Hollande and its European allies: either they intervene and thus risk to be dubbed as neo-colonial or they abstain and allow this part of Africa, far closer from Europe than Afghanistan, to become a new sanctuary for Al Qaida and its allies, which can undermine fragile African states of the area. At the same time, the aggravation of this crisis can only increase the impact of famine and boost migration flows from the Sahel region to other African countries and to Europe.