France loses its influence in Africa

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The Independent Online
Is President Mobutu's ignominious departure a mortal blow for French policy in Africa? Perhaps more accurately, it is a demonstration that the traditional French post-colonial approach to Africa - a kind of Machiavellian clientelism - is already dead.

The collapse of the Mobutu regime may even bring bitter comfort to some in Paris - including the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe - who have long argued that it is time, in the interests of France and Africa, to adopt a fresh policy.

For nearly 50 years, France was acknowledged as the ultimate power-broker in Francophone Africa, initially in its own former colonies, and then, from the 1970s onwards, in the former Belgian possessions of Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi.

At the weekend, Zaire's fate was negotiated aboard a South African warship by an American diplomat. The French ambassador to the neighbouring Congo, was allowed aboard but, according to the newspaper Liberation was asked to "stay at the bar".

In the end, Mr Mobutu seems to have realised the limitations of French power. The President-for-life did not even inform the French government last week that he had decided, in principle, to give up office. Paris learnt of his intentions by reading the New York Times.

The Africanist old-guard in Paris, which has been running virtually a parallel foreign policy since President Jacques Chirac came to power two years ago, tried to prop up Mr Mobutu until the end. There is evidence that they connived in January in a desultory attempt to put together a mercenary defence force against Laurent Kabila's rebels.

A French businessman who helped to set up a rag-tag force of 80, mainly Serbian, mercenaries, and three aircraft, does appear to have been linked to the President's special African adviser, Fernand Wibaux. But diplomats in Paris believe that Mr Wibaux was acting without the backing of the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministry and even against the wishes of the President's chief-of- staff, Dominique Villepin, who is nominally in charge of Africa policy at the Elysee palace. President Chirac's own role is opaque.

Overall, it appears that the old African hands were acting from a stubborn instinct to meddle, rather than in any real hope of preserving the Zairean status quo. The minute scale of the operation - and its abject failure - are, in themselves, evidence that an era of French-African relations is over.

Much of the commentary in the French press, and by French politicians, has portrayed events in Zaire over the last six months as a triumph for a deliberate American strategy to destroy French influence in Africa.

There is some evidence that the United States provided logistical and material support for Mr Kabila. No doubt the US has its own reasons for doing so: Zaire is a richly-endowed country. But President Mobutu, during the Cold War, was as much an American client as a French one. US policy, if coherent at all, was as much driven by a belated recognition that Zaire, under Mobutu, was a corrupt and disintegrating basket case. Belgium also had ceased to support the ruler of its former colony.

Only France continued to champion him to the end, locked into a habit of supporting the "big men" of Francophone Africa, in return for economic advantage, but more importantly, because of a kind of amorphous addiction to political and linguistic influence on the continent. In truth, France gained less economic advantage from Zaire than Belgium or the United States.

In essence, French complaints that the US is driving events in Africa miss a crucial point. The events may be influenced by Washington, but they are being driven mostly by Africans. No amount of US aid could have produced such a rapid rebel advance across Zaire unless it was supported by Zaireans. On the other hand, without the tacit US support Paris received during the Cold War, the old French policy of unconditional support for client African dictators is defunct.