New entente cordiale as Africa is unscrambled

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SETTING A century and a half of colonial rivalry behind them, Britain and France yesterday launched what they billed as an historic new partnership with Africa, aimed at bringing prosperity and peace to the continent.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and his French opposite number Hubert Vedrine met the presidents of Ivory Coast and Ghana, flagship countries of former French and British Africa respectively, before opening a conference of the British and French ambassadors to a dozen African countries.

London and Paris no longer sought to divide up the continent, Mr Vedrine told the meeting, jointly staged in the Ghanaian and Ivory Coast capitals, Accra and Abidjan. "There are no more exclusive spheres of influence, nor any forbidden areas."

Mr Cook said that the two countries acting together could help Africa to boost trade, reduce its debt, and find solutions to its conflicts.

The realities of the modern world are rendering obsolete history's barriers and narrow calculations of national advantage. Both countries have a younger generation of diplomats with no memory of colonial or early post-colonial times.

In Accra, Ghana's militarycollege may exude the spit and polish of Sandhurst, but French companies thrive in the former British colony, and a favourite expatriate hangout in the Ghanaian capital is neither a French brasserie nor an English bar - but an Irish pub.

If there is to be a European foreign policy, as sketched out last December when British and French leaders first agreed to end their rivalry in Africa, the notion would lose all credibility should the two countries continue to do battle with each other through their former colonies.

And then there are the feelings of the Africans themselves. Why in a world of dissolving frontiers, should Ivory Coast be forced to use Paris as its gateway to the world? Or, as Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, the Ghanaian President, said yesterday: "We detest the differentiation between Anglophone and Francophone Africa."

But differentiation will not vanish easily. Once independence became inevitable after the Second World War, Britain's approach was to prepare its African colonies for self-government and membership of the Commonwealth.

France, however, aimed for assimilation: the absorption of educated Africans into French society. "We left and they didn't," a senior British diplomat said. "We disengaged in the 1960s, but they've waited until the 1980s and 1990s."

France has 6,000 soldiers permanently stationed in Africa, while 14 of its former colonies use the CFA franc, pegged to the French franc and thus to the euro. These are all are weapons in the war to preserve French as a world language against the onslaught of English.

But old French certainties have been shaken by the catastrophes in Rwanda and the former Zaire (although bothFrancophone, they are former Belgian, not French, colonies).

In both cases France was on the wrong side, seen as a protector of the reviled President Mobutu in Zaire, and accused of abetting the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. The latter was said to have been a devastating experience Mr Vedrine, who was President Mitterrand's top aide.

But if French policies are changing, they will none the less be operated by many of the people who ran the old policies, and they will be subject to the same jealousies.

France tried to use Britain's recent estrangement from Nigeria to boost its influence in what is potentially the dominant West African power. It also tried - with greater success - to show countries such as Ghana and Kenya what French cultural delights they had missed on account of their links with Britain. The Maison Francaise in Nairobi - a temple to Parisian chic if ever there were one - is just the latest and most visible evidence of this enterprise.

For its part, Britain has been unabashedly cock-a-hoop about pinching a pounds 130m dock renovation contract in Abidjan from under the noses of French companies long accustomed to having everything their own way in Ivory Coast. "Political allies maybe," sniffed a foreign diplomat in Nigeria, "but they'll be commercial competitors to the end."

Quick results, in short, are unlikely. The two-day gathering of ambassadors is to settle the procedural nuts and bolts of co-operation - it is not about aid or joint peacekeeping initiatives in the Congo, Sierra Leone and other crisis spots in Africa.

Indeed, to make it so might merely raise the spectre of neo-colonialism. As the Accra newspaper The Graphic asked this week: "Is this a strategy to re-colonise Ghana and Ivory Coast and strengthen colonial structures?" In modern Africa, old fears as well as old rivalries, die hard.