France on mission to impress Africa

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT JACQUES Chirac has launched his first tour of southern Africa, bringing to South Africa the most high-powered trade entourage to have visited the country since the end of apartheid.

The South African leg of the French President's tour, which includes Namibia, Mozambique and Angola, has been the longest part of the six- day trip. It ended yesterday with Mr Chirac pinning a decoration on Bishop Desmond Tutu, making him a grand officer of the Legion of Honour, France's highest award to non-heads of state. The bishop obligingly said that the anti-apartheid struggle had been based on the French Revolution.

The symbolism was clear. South Africa, the continent's economic giant, where the British and increasingly the United States dominate the scene, is where the French want to lavish their attention.

Among the 40-strong business delegation were a host of big hitters, including the head of Elf oil, Philippe Jaffre, and his counterpart at Total oil, Thierry Desmarest, along with heads of companies such as Alcatel, Bouygues and Cartier. The giants of the French arms industry, Dassault, Eurocopter and Thompson CSF, were also represented in anticipation of the announcement of the winner of a multi-billion-rand South African defence contract.

Christian Graeff, president of the sub-Sahara business association Comite National du Patronat Francais, insisted it was the prospect of new trade deals that had lured the delegation.

But if it was money that brought the businessmen, the French government's motives seem more complex. On the eve of the tour, the French Foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, one of three visiting ministers, insisted that France was not attempting to expand its influence in Africa in an attempt to counter increased US interest.

Nor, he insisted, did France detect a US "conspiracy", despite persistent reports that France suspects Washington is trying to usurp Paris in its traditional sphere of influence. All major trading states, Mr Vedrine said, were interested in Africa's emerging markets.

France insists that it has switched from paternalism to fraternalism in Africa. But it has much to live down on a continent where, for decades it regularly sent in the troops to prop up dictators in return for oil and mineral concessions and government contracts.

The worst blot on the record was France's support for Hutu extremists before and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred. The then French president, Francois Mitterrand, was reported to have said: "In some countries genocide is not really important."

During President Chirac's visit then, it is not surprising that some host countries are cynical about France's new-found interest in southern Africa.

Mr Chirac, while dismissing claims of US-French friction, went on to score points against the Americans when he said France still believed that aid, as well as trade, was essential to Africa's development.

President Bill Clinton's "trade not aid" slogan struck an ugly chord in South Africa during his own tour of the continent earlier this year. The American emphasis irked President Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki, who complained that African countries were sinking under the burden of international debt.

For all that, Mr Chirac has received less of President Mandela's time than did Mr Clinton. French officials deny this, but it is reported that Mr Mandela turned down some of Mr Chirac's proposals to accompany him on events. South Africa, it is claimed, was frightened that other African states might see it as being too friendly with France. Peddling its own theory of an African renaissance - based on "African solutions for African problems" - South Africa, behind welcoming smiles, demonstrated caution.

Some diplomats and observers in South Africa warn that old habits die hard. The French may have given up their taste for military intervention in Africa, but their methods have become more subtle. Sceptics point to claims that only last year France helped to overthrow the elected government of Pascal Lissouba in Congo after he began to award oil concessions to American, rather than French, companies.