In the past decade France has had a dwindling clout of influence in the strategic continent of Africa, a trend that brings the objectives of the 25th France-Afrique summit to the fore. Launched 37 years ago by French president Georges Pompidou, France-Afrique summits have been an important fixture of French diplomacy on the continent for the past decades, and have not been limited to only former French colonies in recent times. But critics have condemned it as a “neo-colonialist” collaboration that favours the economic well being of individual African leaders and dooms the entire continent. Having promised to set a new order in France-Africa relations, French President Sarkozy’s words will go under the microscope at the newly named “Africa-France summit” which takes place in Nice on Monday, May 31.
Since the beginning of the France-Afrique summits in 1973, following the end of colonialism in Africa, France has sought to consolidate its industrial strength by ensuring a strong grip on African raw materials as a result of its hegemony over its former colonies. And although current French President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised a departure from the way France does business with Africa, many believe that he has continued a foreign policy restructuring that would reaffirm France’s influence in a continent mostly coveted for its resources as the paradigm of realism would suggest.
President Sarkozy’s Feb. 28, 2008 speech to the South African parliament in Cape Town set the ball rolling for a new era of France’s place in Africa. He proclaimed a new era in France’s relations with its former African colonies and called for the withdrawal of French troops posted under post-colonial defense agreements between Paris and African nations. In fact, to regain France’s status as a dominant external force in modern day Africa France had to show a political will to depart from its colonial era politics.
From 1884 Europe to the modern rise of China, nations seeking significance on the international stage have often sought to maintain a certain influence in Africa. And to ensure continuity, France sees the importance of inviting more African nations into its network of nations in a backdrop of growing Chinese and Indian influence alongside an increasingly popular South-South co-operation on the continent. An influence that has encouraged some former colonies to turn their backs on the traditional exclusive economic ties. DRC President, Joseph Kabila’s announcement in Cairo, Egypt, as well as President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast’s refusal to attend the summit have surprised only a few people. Only a dozen years ago, this would have been an unthinkable gesture. A time when France unilaterally controlled its network of former colonies and strained ties with the colonial force was tantamount to severing ties with other economic partners in the Francophone world.
But competition has become rough these days, and the France-Afrique summit, tagged by some in the French media as the “summit of renewal” and duly re-baptised as the “Africa-France summit”, promises some hard bargains, especially with non-francophone countries, if France wants to re-establish strong economic ties on the resource-rich continent. But critics argue that the summit could see France tightening its “neo-colonialist” grip on Africa. Anti-Nice Summit campaigners insist that “it is not per chance” that the meeting is being symbolically organised “at a time when former French colonies are celebrating their 50 years of independence, which, without much surprise, have the trappings of a colonial era celebration”.
Indeed, France has always commanded a great influence in Africa, but socio-political and economic events in the past such as the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda have seen their clout in Africa dwindle. President Sarkozy’s efforts to rebuild France’s influence in Africa came to international attention when he embarked on the first French presidential visit to Rwanda since the 1994 genocide and accepted that France had blames to share for the mass killings; admitting that France and the international community made “mistakes.” Since the 1990s, France’s Africa policies have been re-assessed, but critics insist that France is still prepared to intervene in Africa to protect its interests even when the country known as the home of human rights’ responses contrasted with its undying support for democracy and human rights.
President Sarkozy has opened the way for the normalisation of relations between France and African nations, and with such development oriented and new breed of African leaders, including South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, President Sarkozy can only put his mark on the gathering and ensure continuity by pushing for win-win economic ties.
In a show of support for democracy and human rights in Africa, the summit in Nice holds without such leaders as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar. Notwithstanding the absence of some heads of state, 51 of the 53 countries will be represented in some form.