Chirac struggles to revive lost influence in Africa

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It may have seemed that President Jacques Chirac, who flew out of Paris yesterday to reach Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in time for the inaugural dinner of the Francophone African summit, was exchanging one trouble spot for another. From a capital braced for further terrorist attacks, he was arriving at an assembly of leaders from more than 50 African countries, several of which, notably Zaire and the Central African Republic, face the prospect of much worse disorder.

The summit was likely to be overshadowed, however, by a question that has been raised recently to France's great displeasure. Is France as the ex-colonial power still able to propose and dispose in its traditional zones of influence?

Two developments have placed the question on the agenda. The first was its failure, despite a concerted diplomatic effort and statements about the "biggest humanitarian crisis ever", to muster an international force to intervene in the Rwanda-Zaire border area. Half the crisis seemed to be solved when several hundred thousand Rwandan refugees walked back to their home country. By this week, the 10,000-strong force proposed had been reduced to plans for a food and medicine parachute drop in eastern Zaire. Even that may not happen.

The second development was no easier for France to swallow: the public vaunting of its weakness by the United States. The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, had already infuriated France by challenging its "monopoly" on relations with some African countries. But the knife was turned last week by the US ambassador to Zaire, who gave a briefing to local journalists that then appeared verbatim in a Kinshasa newspaper. The ambassador, Daniel Simpson, was quoted as saying that France was "no longer capable of imposing its will in Africa" and that it continued to support "decadent" regimes. "The Cold War is over and it is no longer a matter of supporting dictators just because they are pro-Western," he said. French officials extracted an apology, but the damage was done. In fact, the sentiments attributed to the ambassador have been voiced by French specialists on Africa.

To counter the notion that his country protects corrupt dictators, Mr Chirac will argue in Ouagadougou for "good governance" in Africa, representing a shift from the emphasis on patronage towards a British-style model of aid tied to economic efficiency and political soundness. The message could be undermined, though, by the refuge accorded by France to President Mobutu of Zaire, who is convalescing on the Riviera from a cancer operation.