In the course of five days, he will visit Morocco and three Francophone states in West Africa: Ivory Coast, Gabon and Senegal, each of which will host a mini-summit of regional leaders for his benefit.
Mr Chirac, who is regarded as a "friend of Africa", has deliberately chosen the continent for his first official foreign visit (outside international gatherings). According to the Elysee spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, he wanted to show that Africa was a "priority for French foreign policy" and make a statement against the trend of the "industrialised countries to disengage from the continent".
Ms Colonna said Mr Chirac would be taking a message of "fidelity" which would stress "stability, progress towards democracy and responsible manage- ment of public funds". Behind those words, however, lay a large quotient of French self-interest and a multitude of historical and political currents.
The Africa tour, which includes meetings with the King of Morocco and 14 other heads of state, is a chance for Mr Chirac to project an image of international clout and cultivate a constituency which needs France as much as, if not more than, France needs it.
What has turned French heads as much as Mr Chirac's chosen destination, however, and prompted reflections on France's long involvement in Africa, is his choice of travelling companion.
Along with the minister of co-operation and junior minister responsible for African affairs, he will be accompanied on the second stage of his trip by Jacques Foccart, adviser on Africa to General de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, who is seen as the eminence grise of French Africa policy, and his protege, Fernand Wibaux. Both represent the tradition of colonial patronage, which stressed loyalty to France and political stability - at the cost of turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and political persecution.
Over the past two years, this tradition has been challenged, among others by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, (then Foreign Minister), and by the former prime minister Edouard Balladur, who angered France's African allies by massively devaluing the franc they used for trade purposes.
Mr Juppe is known to have commissioned a report that showed the extent of corruption among Francophone Africa's elites and to have recommended that development aid come under the foreign ministry, which it now does. But the very existence of the corruption report was fudged yesterday by Ms Colonna, and at least some of Mr Chirac's advice is coming from the old Africa hands of Gaullism.
Mr Chirac will not be making any big speeches in Africa. According to Ms Colonna, he is going "to listen". But her choice of words indicated that the struggle for the soul of French Africa policy between traditionalists who advocate stability and those who want sound finances and democratic government is unresolved.
The two-day Moroccan leg, which opens the tour today, is less complex. Morocco is being treated as a fully paid-up foreign country and potential ally in two areas of interest: the Islamic world and the Mediterranean.Reuse content