France is to renegotiate all defence agreements with its former colonies in Africa, Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday, in the strongest signal yet that the French president will act on his pledge to transform his country’s stance towards the world’s poorest continent.
By Alec Russell and William MacNamara in Jo’burg and Ben Hall in Paris
Since decolonisation in the early 1960s, France has maintained military bases in several countries in west and central Africa and frequently intervened to prop up autocratic rulers with whom it had close ties. But in an address to South Africa’s parliament in Cape Town at the start of a two-day visit, Mr Sarkozy sought to draw a line under that period, saying the defence accords no longer had the same “relevance”.
He was not saying the pacts should “necessarily be scrapped and that everything should be erased with the stroke of a pen”, he said. But the agreements’ “wording is obsolete…They must reflect Africa as it is today and not as it was yesterday”.
Analysts said there were as yet no details of the proposed replacement agreements but French officials indicated they would be negotiated over the next few months. The new emphasis for the French military in Africa is expected to be on training missions.
France is thought to have about 26 military accords with several of its former African colonies, ranging from full-blown defence agreements that allow for military intervention, as in the Central African Republic in 2006, to co-operation on training and arms sales.
France has 9,000 troops deployed in five countries, with three permanent bases in Senegal, Gabon and Djibouti. The biggest change in deployment is likely to be in Ivory Coast, where France has 2,400 peacekeeping troops stationed.
As on most of his foreign trips, Mr Sarkozy is travelling with a high-profile delegation of business leaders. The focus of this mission of 40 chief executives is South Africa’s electricity crisis. The French leader won rave reviews in local media when he announced a R15.5bn ($2bn, €1.3bn, £1bn) deal under which Alstom, the French industrial group, will help build a much-needed coal-fired power plant.
The agreement with Eskom, South Africa’s overstretched power utility, is to provide turbines for its new Bravo power plant. It follows a similar R13.2bn contract awarded in November for Eskom’s new Medupi plant. These gargantuan plants – each to produce 4,200MW – are the two biggest components of Eskom’s five-year, multi-billion-rand building programme.
Philippe Joubert, Alstom’s executive vice-president, said the R28.7bn combined value made the contracts the biggest that either Eskom or Alstom had ever signed.
Alstom has also joined a bid by Areva, the French nuclear power company, to build Eskom’s new R120bn nuclear plant. The contract is to be awarded in the middle of this year.
Mr Sarkozy’s promise to renegotiate defence pacts is the latest of many pledges to break with his predecessors’ post-colonial policy towards Africa. His critics say, however, that change has been slow to materialise.