Winds of change in l'Afrique?
For Sarkozy, there is not just one Monsieur Afrique, says Eva Dadrian
Everybody remembers Nicolas Sarkozy's speech in Cotonou, Benin, in May 2006. Booed by hundreds of demonstrators, the then French minister of interior stated, "we have to build a new relationship, cleaner, free of complexes, balanced, clear of the dregs of the past and of obsolescent ideas that remain on both sides of the Mediterranean." A year later, on the very night of his victory in the presidential elections Sarkozy talked about France's "fraternal ties" with Africans and called for their collaboration in shaping France's new Africa policy. The newly- elected president wants to replace the 50- year-old murky African relations with a more "adult, responsible and transparent" partnership.
As much as he intends to put France back into the international political arena, the new French president plans to recapture France's lost position in Africa. For the past 50 years, since independence, most of francophone Africa has depended on French military and security protection. Interweaving commercial ties with political "arrangements" and vice-versa, the survival of nos amis en Afrique depends on their friendly relations with le Palais de l'Elysée, the French presidential seat. In addition and thanks to a network of self-appointed mafia-type businessmen-cum-counsellors, French foreign aid to the continent has been a source of widespread corruption in Africa as well as in France for decades.
Sarkozy is a man in a hurry. A whirlwind, he gives the impression of frenetic readiness. Like a diligent and studious schoolboy he's done his homework before climbing up the stairs of power and sitting down at the presidential desk. Less than 10 days after his election victory he announced his Monsieur Maghreb in the person of Boris Boillon, a career diplomat and African specialist, and appointed Bruno Joubert as his Monsieur Afrique.
Bruno Joubert was former adviser of the Permanent Representation of France at the EU, former director for Africa and the Indian Ocean, former head of the Ministerial Cabinet for European Affairs, and until his nomination as African advisor to the president, deputy secretary-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fifty-five years old and a graduate from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, Joubert worked for a while at the DGSE (foreign secret service). He will work under Jean-David Levitte, former ambassador to the UN and to Washington, who will head the Conseil de Sécurité Nationale that Sarkozy plans to establish on the US model.
The rest of Joubert's African team is also Africanist and speak Swahili. Rémy Maréchaux worked closely with Joubert at the Quai d'Orsay. Starting his career at the Ministère de la Coopération he moved to l'Agence Française de dévelopement. Jean-Christophe Belliard, Joubert's second lieutenant, has held diplomatic positions in Sudan, Tanzania and South Africa.
So what does this high-power team and Sarkozy's intentions really mean for Africa?
There are grounds to think that President Sarkozy is genuinely eager to try to clean things up. Some observers believe that France has spent too much time, money and effort to maintain a privileged position in its former colonies in West Africa to continue to let things slide. For almost 50 years, dubious dealings, military support to secure undemocratic regimes, mafia-type networking and large handouts have only benefited a few African leaders and a small French business community. Now the time has come for France to look into Africa not only with fresh eyes but also beyond the frontiers of francophone Africa.
However, it will be difficult to move away from major business interests in Africa, i.e., Groupe Bolloré and Bouygues, the mighty telecommunications and multinational industrial group. Sarkozy has strong ties with Vincent Bollore. The much publicised vacation that he took with his wife and young son on Bollore's yacht after the elections proves that big business will be present in any new policy. It is well known that Bollore has ties to TotalElfFina, the French oil giant long used by the DGSE as a front business to carry out intelligence and covert operations in Africa. The new cellule africaine of Joubert and company is composed of people who have, throughout their career, rub shoulders with the elusive but very real intelligence service.
On the political front, Sarkozy has also friends such as Abdoulaye Wade, the Senegalese president, Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, the Algerian head of state, and Amadou Toumani Touré, the newly re-elected Malian president. These African leaders are tipped to become Sarkozy's new allies in Africa and observers reckon that in a certain way nothing will really change. It's old wine in new bottles, or is it new wine in old bottles as proven by Sarkozy's meeting with Omar Bongo of Gabon. In power since 1967, Bongo is the doyen of African leaders and a very close friend of France. Well known for his dubious dealings and undemocratic credentials, Bongo sits on one of the largest oil reserves in Africa and has a number of influential amis in the political as well as the business circles gravitating around Quai d'Orsay (French foreign affairs) and Palais de l'Elysée. Analysts reckon that Omar Bongo will have no trouble nurturing friends in the new circles of power.
But not many Africans believe that major changes will take place. The imprint left by Jacques Foccard, Monsieur Afrique par excellence, is too strongly engrained in France's relations with Africa. The new president will not really break away from the continent, neither will he abandon France's African friends, nor will he let the riches of the continent slip into the hands of Chinese and US businesses. There's too much at stake.