The answer lies in the relationship France maintains with its former colonies in Africa, a unique and complicated one that it is hard, maybe impossible, for British people to understand. In country after country in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Union Jack was hauled down from flagpoles as Britain's colonies became independent. Plumed-helmeted governors moved out of each capital's Government House, it was renamed State House and the new presidents moved in. The new British high commissions had to make do with less salubrious buildings - in Khartoum, offices over the Shell garage. It truly was the end of empire.
The French did things differently. Although the flags changed in 1960 when most of French Africa became 'independent', French officialdom did not leave. Until recently almost all former French colonies had a senior French official behind the door in every key office of the new governments. It was called co-operation, but it meant that Paris retained influence, if not control, in 16 African countries. In some cases, a single French official became an eminence gris to the president, controlling everything from the budget to his personal security.
While the new leaders of former British colonies defined their existence by their anti-colonialist, anti- British stance, presidents such as Leopold Senghor of Senegal or Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast were as proud to be French as they were to be African. Even now, Africans from francophone countries talk of Paris as their second home. As a result you can buy fresh baguettes and today's Le Monde on the streets of Abidjan and Dakar, and Africans there speak accentless French.
Afraid of accusations of neo-imperialism, Britain has been nervous about deploying military force to further its ends in post-colonial Africa. Its emergency contingency plans for Africa consist of sending in the Paras to get Britons out of trouble spots.
France maintains full-scale military bases in the Central African Republic and Djibouti, and smaller deployments of French troops elsewhere. It is not afraid to use them to further its local interests or to protect a friendly government. In 1990, for example, Paris sent paratroopers to Rwanda, ostensibly to protect foreigners, but in fact to bolster the Hutu government of Rwanda at a key moment, and to turn back the Rwandese Patriotic Front, made up of exiled Tutsis.
But what is in it today for France? From London, where Africa is often seen as little more than an expensive basket case, it is a puzzling question. Much of it has to do with language and culture. English is the main language of communication in the world - a phenomenon most British people barely notice, let alone care about.
But the French care deeply about their language, and their government spends much of its 'aid' to developing countries on spreading French and French culture. The equivalent of the Commonwealth is the Francophonie, a yearly meeting of all French-speaking heads of state in the world, presided over by the French president. How much has French intervention in Rwanda been prompted, perhaps subconsciously, by the fact that the advancing rebels, most of whom grew up in exile in Uganda, speak English rather than French?
While the British empire in Africa was a mixture of colony and protectorate, ruled piecemeal and pragmatically through traditional local systems, the French empire in Africa was based on the grandiose concept of France overseas, ruled directly according to universal precepts of French law. The broad British imperial plan was to make its subjects literate, Christian, perhaps soldiers or cricketers - but not Englishmen. Under French guidance and education, the inhabitants of French African colonies would, in the fullness of time, become full French citizens.
Today these countries stay close to France, voting for it at the United Nations in exchange for aid and military support - and often personal support for the president and his family. France is loyal to its allies in Africa, even though leaders such as Sese Seko Mobutu of Zaire, Martin Bongo of Gabon and Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo are not known for good records on human rights, democracy or good government. African leaders visiting France are given full ceremonial treatment, and can always meet the president.
Africa has always been a French president's personal preserve and therefore a battleground for the foreign ministry. Many French presidents have dealt with Africa directly, picking up the telephone to talk to an African head of state on first-name terms. President Francois Mitterrand appointed his son, Christophe, to run his African policy. He was known in Africa as 'Papa m'a dit'. In return for this lavish attention, African presidents fund French politicians and French political parties, and give special concessions to French companies, which operate in Africa as little more than an arm of French foreign policy.
Until recently, the cost of these cosy friendships in Africa was borne by the French treasury, which underwrote the the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA), the currency of 14 African countries. It had maintained parity with the French franc since the early Sixties, but in January the franc- CFA rate was halved at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund.
At the same time, French foreign ministry officials began to talk more of a pragmatic approach to Africa, emphasising that the relationship would be 'less personal'. To the distress of Mr Mitterrand, his personal stage was being reduced and France's claim to be a world power much diminished. He needed a grand gesture to show his friends in Africa that France could still act an imperial part.
Mr Mitterrand chose Rwanda. But as the Americans found in Somalia, the grand gesture sometimes sinks into a inexplicable - and inextricable - quagmire.
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