The French President was the first European head of state to visit the new South Africa and the first outsider to address the new parliament. But this is no mere coincidence of diaries. France and South Africa are the two big powers in Africa now with South Africa poised to take a leading role in the rest of the continent, backed by its heavyweight army and President Nelson Mandela's moral authority. South Africa will certainly assume the leadership of English- speaking Africa, which has been all but abandoned by Britain. France, in contrast, maintains strong links with its former colonies and is prepared to send troops to defend its interests and its image in Africa.
Britain's declining influence was not only emphasised by President Mitterrand's 'first' but also by the news that President Mandela has turned down an invitation to attend the Westminster Abbey celebration to mark the return of South Africa to the Commonwealth on 20 July. South Africa will be represented by Thabo Mbeki, a Deputy President. While Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, is visiting South Africa on 10 July, John Major is not expected to visit South Africa until later this year.
The nuts and bolts of President Mitterrand's visit will be a French aid package, trade and investment and an opportunity for the French President to bask in the reflected glory of Mr Mandela. Despite sanctions, France is the fifth-largest investor in South Africa and is hoping to use South Africa as an investment springboard for the rest of Africa as well as increase trade, including arms sales, to South Africa itself. Although there are few French-speakers in South Africa, Paris has issued an invitation to South Africa to attend the Francophone summit in Biarritz later this year.
But the relationship goes further than trade and television images. It opens up the possibility of political co-operation in the rest of Africa in areas such as peace-keeping and armed peace-making in places like Rwanda. Although the new South African government is making its own domestic problems a top priority, it will inevitably get sucked into the continent's conflicts.
Against this background and President Mandela's 'bury the past' policy, the irony of the Mirages, sold to South Africa after the 1963 United Nations arms embargo and maintained under licence, is being overlooked.