"We’re not going to fall out with those who do us great service," is how French presidential secretary-general Claude Guéant justifies President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Africa policy.
Sarkozy had promised to break with the Françafrique networks of his predecessors. But it’s not easy to get rid of a system.
Françafrique? It’s died at least four times already.
In January 1994, when the CFA franc – the common currency which succeeded the franc of the Colonies françaises en Afrique - was devalued by 50 per cent, many thought it was over. A month later came the funeral of former Côte d’Ivoire President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The “father of Françafrique “ was buried, with Françafrique itself - France's François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, Gabon's Omar Bongo, Togo's Gnassingbé Eyadema etc - apparently meeting for a final farewell.
After the left-wing election victory in France in April 1997, new Prime Minister Lionel Jospin defined the government’s African policy in four words, "Neither interference nor indifference". And many then believed that Françafrique was gone for good.
Then in January 2008, when the French State Secretary for Co-operation, Jean-Marie Bockel, announced in Le Monde: "I want to sign the death certificate of Françafrique." If the minister himself said so, it must be true, mustn't it? Two months later, the unfortunate Bockel lost the co-operation portfolio at the request of Gabonese President Omar Bongo.
At the same time, in February 2008, France was helping Chad's President Idriss Déby to repel a rebel assault on N'Djamena, with no quid pro quo demanded. To date, no effective criminal investigation has been conducted into the disappearance of the opposition leader Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh.
Also in February 2008, Paris turned a blind eye to the ruthless repression of hunger rioters in Cameroon, which led to more than 100 deaths according to independent sources.
Finally, in August 2009, days before the presidential election that was to designate the successor of Omar Bongo as leader of Gabon, one of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unofficial advisers, Robert Bourgi, confided to Le Monde: "In Gabon, France does not have a candidate, but Robert Bourgi’s candidate is Ali Bongo. And I’m a very influential friend of Nicolas Sarkozy. Subliminally, voters will understand."
At the same time, French Co-operation Minister Alain Joyandet, made a discreet trip to Equatorial Guinea to ask President Obiang Nguema to stop supporting André Mba Obame over France’s preferred candidate.
Has the break with past practice promised by Sarkozy when he was presidential candidate been forgotten?
It’s not that simple. Not all countries are in the same boat.
In Togo, for example, the French President tried to distinguish himself from his predecessor Jacques Chirac. In April 2005 he described the election of the controversial son of the late Gnassingbé Eyadema as a "sham". At least 500 people died during that election campaign, according to the UN.
Since coming to power in May 2007, Sarkozy has obliged both Joyandet and Bruno Joubert, the head of the Elysée’s Africa section, to meet Togo’s main opposition leader.
But Togo is not strategically placed like Chad and lacks Gabon’s oil wealth. Clearly, Paris is more demanding with Lomé than with other capitals. Indeed, the Togolese regime understands the situation perfectly. Last December, the first secretary of the French embassy in Lomé was expelled - no doubt a message to the French: "Don’t take too much interest in next February’s presidential election”.
Another sign of "rupture" is the renegotiation of defence agreements with former French colonies. No more secret clauses that guarantee French military aid to regimes in case of a local uprising or armed rebellion.
"Times have changed and it’s not up to France to play the gendarme in Africa," said Nicolas Sarkozy in Cape Town, South Africa, in February 2008.
But he backed down on closing the French military base in Libreville, Gabon, despite a recommendation in a June 2008 defence policy paper.
"It's give and take,” commented a presidential adviser to Gabon’s Ali Bongo. “The French protect our system against internal and external threats. In exchange, we support their policies in Africa and elsewhere.”
The latest sign of change: attempts at reconciliation with countries which were very hostile to France before Sarkozy.
The normalisation of relations with the regime of the Rwandan President Paul Kagamé are on track. Diplomatic relations were restored last November after a three-year break. French judges suspect the Rwandan regime of involvement in 1994’s fatal attack on President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane. For its part, Rwanda’s legal system accuses France of complicity in the 1994 genocide. Paris and Kigali are currently trying to settle their legal disputes.
Things are more complicated with the regime of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, probably due to the strong links between political actors in France and Côte d'Ivoire. Everything hangs on the outcome of the forthcoming presidential election and whether or not the poll is transparent.
One difference between Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy is that the former refused to take telephone calls from African heads of state who were openly hostile to him. Indeed, he never hid his dislike of some, Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, for example.
Sarkozy has been more subtle.
Fifty years after independence, France is finally starting to treat all its former colonies in the same way, those that have remained friends as well as those that have cut the cord. Gone are the days when President Charles de Gaulle wanted to punish Guinea’s Sékou Touré for daring to say no to France, in the 1958 referendum which voted for independence.
There’s less pathos, more pragmatism.
France has learnt some lessons from the anti-French riots in Abidjan in November 2004. The future of Côte d'Ivoire is no longer decided in France under the leadership of Jacques Chirac, but in Africa, by Burkina Faso’s leader, Blaise Compaoré. And today, Gbagbo's supporters, the Patriots, find it more and more difficult to mobilise the masses of Abidjan against "colonial” France.
Fifty years later, France’s relations with Africa are gradually becoming normal.
Taking care of business
So what is left of Françafrique in 2010?
First of all, business. Paris gives priority to African countries that sell oil (Angola, Nigeria, etc) or uranium (Niger), and those that can buy hitech (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, South Africa). Hence Nicolas Sarkozy’s extreme caution with regard to Mamadou Tandja, the man who changed Niger’s Constitution in order to stay in power until 2012.
But, above all, what remains of Françafrique is an alliance motivated by mutual self-interest.
For the French, Françafrique has long been “France à fric” - a source of cash.
"Let's call a spade a spade," said Elf's former managing director Loïc Le Floch-Prigent during the 2002 corruption trial involving the French oil giant. "The money from Elf goes to Africa and comes back to France.”
At Omar Bongo’s funeral last June, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing told Europe 1 radio of a strange telephone conversation that took place during the 1981 presidential campaign.
"I called Bongo and I said to him: "You’re supporting the campaign of my competitor [Jacques Chirac],” Giscard said. “There was a pause and then he said 'Oh, you know?’ which was wonderful. From that moment on, I broke off personal relations with him."
It’s hard to believe that such practices have completely disappeared in 2010.
On the French side, policymakers – both on the left and the right - continue to nurse the ambition of a "greater France", a France whose worldwide profile is raised by four power-boosters: nuclear weapons (made with fuel from Niger), a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its position in Europe and its influence in Africa.
In 2003, during his showdown with US President George Bush on Iraq, Chirac openly used the last three weapons.
So Africa is key to this strategy. Jean-Pierre Dozon even called it the "Franco-African State".
"The most successful scam of the Fifth Republic, by which the French government managed to transform itself into a great power, was to disperse foreign policy among many nations dedicated to supporting the French position."
Françafrique, "a single and, at the same time, a multiple state”. Françafrique as "historical individuality," according to Dozon, borrowing a formula from sociologist Max Weber.
Keeping friends in power
On the African side, Françafrique is seen by many leaders as life insurance.
It is the guarantee of financial support to failing economies through official development assistance (APD), the intercession of Paris with the IMF and the World Bank, and monetary support through the CFA franc backed by the French Treasury and the euro.
This perpetuates regimes that may be undemocratic but are loyal to France.
Has the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy changed matters?
"No," wrote Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembé in the Douala daily Le Messager. "The cartel satraps - of [Gabon’s] Omar Bongo, [Cameroon’s] Paul Biya, [Congo’s] Sassou Nguesso to [Chad’s] Idriss Déby, [Togo’s Gnassingbé] Eyadema and others - welcomed what is clearly the choice of continuity in the management of Françafrique - this system of reciprocal corruption which, since the end of colonial occupation, ties France to its African henchmen."
Since then, Ali Bongo has succeeded his father and the Senegalese Karim Wade appears to be preparing to succeed his father in the 2012 presidential election.
In fact, to many African heads of state, Françafrique remains an irreplaceable instrument for holding on to power: a guarantee against democratic change, a sign of presidency for life, indeed, a promise of inheriting power.
The strength of these regimes is in leading France to believe that they are her only steadfast allies, in contrast to their opponents, whether politicians or rebels.
France’s weakness is believing that this is true, for convenience sake rather than out of naivety.
"We’re not going to fall out with those who do us great service," says Elysée secretary general Claude Guéant.
That’s a far cry from Barack Obama’s speech in Accra last August.
"Africa does not need strongmen, but strong institutions,” he said.
Françafrique is a utilitarian view of Africa. But it means that France runs a very real risk of being out of step with African youth.