Sarkozy and Africa: Misunderstanding or Change?

Is France changing? Over the last few months, the new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his flamboyant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, have clearly stated that the traditional Gaullist bashing of the United States is over. On Iran or Sudan, the new French policy looks much closer to Washington’s. To what extent do these shifts represent a genuine change? And most important for those who follow African affairs, how will French policy on Africa be reframed by the new team?

To answer these questions, this essay explores the backgrounds of the individuals involved in the French policy making process on Africa, the actual policy priorities of the new French administration, and the main challenges it is going to face in its Africa policy.

We can draw three major conclusions. First, Nicolas Sarkozy is still behaving like a presidential candidate rather than a President. On Africa, it is his closest political friends rather than expert advisers who are influencing his thinking regarding the continent. As a consequence, Bernard Kouchner is unable to influence effectively France’s strategic policy on Africa or the world, beyond his specific humanitarian touch.

Second, two main priorities seem to frame French Africa policy: the control of immigrants and the management of African crises. The first, though affecting only a few African countries, allows President Sarkozy to keep a strong constituency on the French right. The second priority is a way both to demonstrate ”breakthrough” by endorsing stances closer to Washington (as on Darfur), and to cast himself as a major actor on the international stage, comfortable in the glare of TV cameras.

Third, there won’t be a structural redefinition of policy toward the African continent at this early stage of the French presidency. For the time being, changes will be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the discrepancy between the real French economic interests in Africa and the countries where French policy focuses will eventually decrease.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his “dream team”

Although Nicolas Sarkozy could be considered the heir to former interior minister, Charles Pasqua, a character in the Françafrique drama of the past three decades, he has not shown any genuine interest in Africa or African leaders. During the presidential campaign, although he gave his views on the colonial debate (“Is France “guilty” because it colonized Africa?”), Africa was mentioned only because of its humanitarian crises, notably eastern Chad and Darfur, and the immigration issue. (African migrants are the perfect scapegoats for the rifts in the social fabric illustrated by the riots of November 2005).

The team handling the Africa file at the presidential palace, in a sense, reflects this weak interest. While all the team members are respected within diplomatic and expert circles, their connection to Nicolas Sarkozy is circumstantial rather than visceral; fate conspired to bring them into Sarkozy’s orbit. It is notable that the team leader, Bruno Joubert, was previously working hand in hand with the Africa cell of Jacques Chirac. The only characteristic that makes him closer to the current president is his alleged dislike of Dominique de Villepin, the former Prime Minister and Sarkozy’s arch enemy among the Gaullists.

After his election, Sarkozy appointed Bernard Kouchner Minister of Foreign Affairs; Jean-Marie Bockel Minister of State for Cooperation and Francophonie; and Rama Yade Minister of State for Human Rights and Foreign affairs and Human Rights. Although Rama Yade’s appointment has some symbolic significance (she was born in Senegal in 1976), and although she is reputedly close to Sarkozy, her portfolio is vague. It is more than likely that Kouchner and Bockel will be the ones designing Sarkozy’s Africa policy. And yet, even for them there are potential pitfalls ahead. Because they are former opponents rallied to Sarkozy after his election, their individual portfolios have been carefully shorn of influence. The Elysée has centralized most of the decisions; they do not carry the same weight as they would have had they been real allies. And they may not be long in going. Bernard Kouchner has already embarrassed the President, making a number of diplomatic blunders related to Iraq, Iran, Libya and the African Union. But he is popular in France and willing to keep his position as long as possible.

Sarkozy’s first trip to Africa took place in July and illustrated the problems inherent in his approach to the continent. The choice of Senegal and Gabon as the countries to be visited hardly suggested an aggiornamento or spirit of change in Africa policy. Sarkozy’s speech at the University of Dakar was a political error, widely seen as racist and patronizing – and justifiably so, with its evocations of “the African peasant…who for thousands of years has lived according to the seasons” and its assurance that Africans need not “be ashamed of the values of African civilization.” These remarks were a reflection of who really is in charge of Sarkozy’s Africa policy for the time being: his inner circle, whose knowledge of Africa is debatable at best. The did not take into account advice on the speech offered by the Africa team.

What priorities?

Sarkozy’s obsession with immigration is well known. Over the past few years, he has been a vibrant advocate of controlling the flow of migrants into France. It was a policy he tested – to debatable effect – when he was Minister of the Interior, and it has now become a key component of his Africa policy.

There are different ways of reading Sarkozy’s preoccupation with African immigrants. One is that because they are readily identifiable as “foreigners” by most of the French white population, they provide him with capital to maintain his support on the French right. Sarkozy’s stance brings him the support of many who consider immigrants “The Problem” (“they take jobs, do not integrate, might even be Muslims…”). This authoritarian discourse is a comfort to many, reinforcing as it does the idea of “true” France. It is also easier to antagonise Mali than China – African governments have little leverage in France. They may protest publicly but then have to endorse whatever Paris is deciding.

This policy means that forced expulsions from France are becoming a normal feature of French Africa policy. In order to cool down concerns raised in many quarters, including from within the Gaullist party, a new rhetoric has emerged. Its effect has been to color the coercive dimension of the immigration policy with an old idea: “co-development”. It is as if promoting development projects in migrants’ countries would make a drastic difference and keep people home. Migrations, however – and African migrations in particular – are complex phenomena. They cannot be reduced to a simple construct of poverty. And African migrants cannot be made responsible for the failure of French society to adapt itself to globalisation. Neither the crisis of French youth nor the decay of the French industrial sector has anything to do with African migration.

Africa is the site of crises, particularly in Chad and Darfur, that have profoundly moved the French public. Consequently, due to Kouchner’s personal history in humanitarian causes and President Sarkozy’s desire to make political capital out of humanitarian crises, one may expect France to be more vocal than ever.

Yet, the constraints are numerous. In eastern Chad, where at French instigation a force of up to 3,000 European troops (along with 300 UN police) is being dispatched to protect refugee camps, France’s neutrality is being questioned by rebel groups because of its past armed backing for the regime. Elsewhere, crises like the ones unfolding in Ethiopia’s Ogaden and Somalia are just ignored by France. It is difficult to know whether this silence is a matter of ignorance or a political choice, and whether or not it is strategic – a conscious decision taken so as not to annoy Washington or Addis Ababa.

Around the rest of the continent, the prospects, for French policy, at least in the short term, are not very exciting. Without a clear overall strategy, it seems likely that policies will be adopted on a case-by-case basis.

The ground for change

The current, slightly chaotic, management of France’s Africa policy cannot last long. As his honeymoon comes to an end, Sarkozy will likely turn his attention to problems in France and Europe. In that case, the Africa file will turn increasingly to career diplomats and the military. Bernard Kouchner seems to have little taste for managing day-to-day Africa policy and his deputy, Jean-Marie Bockel, has no record on the subject. A likely scenario, that is if they stay in charge beyond municipal elections next year, will be that their bureaucracies do the most substantial part of the work.

There should be little expectation of a new or substantive policy on how to deal with China in Africa, how to redefine the France-Africa cooperation apparatus, how to convince Europe to continue to play a role in Africa, or how to improve France’s image in the eyes of Africa’s elites. In keeping with tradition, France is focusing on its old colonies, while its economic and strategic interests are elsewhere on the continent. Nigeria, South Africa, Angola and Kenya are far more important to France than the former colonies. Adaptation, more than reform, seems likely; genuine changes would challenge bureaucratic habits and require the lasting involvement of the key policy makers.

The only real question marks concern the possible reconfiguration of the French military presence in Africa and its attitude in the face of the new U.S. policy driven by the war on terror and the establishment of the Africa Command. In terms of political philosophy, France (with Europe more generally) still has many problems with the current U.S. understanding of the war on terror and U.S. policies regarding this subject on the African continent. The French military, for good and bad reasons, will try to stress these differences and maintain a critical stance toward current U.S. policy and the Africa Command. Significant French–U.S. military cooperation on the African continent looks unlikely in the near future.

A White Paper on Defence is on the French agenda. Off the record, officials suggest that drastic changes will be made, including closing French bases in Africa. However, experience shows that while French politicians like to talk about reforms, they are not, as Jacques Chirac proved, enthusiastic about undertaking them. Having said that, there is the distinct possibility that some cutbacks will be undertaken this time around in view of the French government’s budget deficit.

The newly elected President of France likes the media, plays to public opinion, and wants to show how different he is from the old-fashioned Jacques Chirac. He conveys a sense of drastic reforms to come. The reality, however, is more prosaic. Nicolas Sarkozy had little exposure to international affairs before taking office, and his populist and hot-tempered behavior has already alienated many European leaders. He has not fared much better with African elites. Beyond an immigration policy aimed at cultivating domestic support, and his involvement in some African crises in order to raise his European and international profile, he will very likely pass on the less flashy but vitally important work on the continent to expert advisers. The breakthrough or rupture he is claiming will likely be nothing more than an adaptation to dynamics and trends that are beyond his reach, at least when it comes to Africa. In this case, in the words of an Italian newspaper, “la rupture sera faire du vieux avec du vieux,” perhaps best translated as “no more than old wine in new bottles.” ______________________________________________________________________
Roland Marchal is Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) of the National Center for Scientific Research and Sciences-Po Paris.

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Roland Marchal