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France will not redefine its relations with Africa

THE election of the socialist candidate, François Hollande, as the president of France at the weekend has triggered a lot of speculation about the wider implications of this development. Clearly, they will be far wider than the issue of the eurozone debt crisis. There are both fears and hopes for Africa. Hopes that Hollande will bring France closer to a non-paternalistic relationship with Francophone Africa have to be moderated because the relationship is founded in neo-colonialism, a system by which the power of an external state lingers on after nominal independence through linkages perpetuated by the nature of economic relations, a complex aid system, cultural linkages and binding legal agreements, among other factors.

Writing in 1965 in a publication entitled, Neocolonialism, the last stage of imperialism, the late Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, decries, even at that early stage of independence, the fact that although many former colonies had all the trappings of national sovereignty in the community of nations, they were still controlled subtly from the old colonial capitals. He noticed that in most cases, economic decisions and political reforms were directed from outside. He thought neocolonialism was more complicated than colonialism because while in the case of the latter declared colonial powers were obliged to account, at least, to their own voting populations for their activities in the colonies and those in the colonies who participated in colonial rule could count on colonial powers to protect them against their domestic opponents, neither is true under neo-colonialism. Former colonial powers are willing to dispense of yesterday’s friends when challenged internally and substitute them for a new clientele elite.

Most global powers continue to benefit from neo-colonial relations with Africa, but a few remain very entrenched, as the recent cases of Libya and Cote d’Ivoire crises have shown. France has particularly neo-colonial relations with many of its former colonies and from this it does not just benefit economically, but it also draws immense political capital as a pater to tens of states that it can count on to get votes in the UN system and for political support to its global strategy. Many of its past presidents have regretted this and committed to find a new basis for French-Africa relations, but none have succeeded. None has actually really tried to. Hollande has not declared his intention to decolonize its Africa policy, but even if he does he is unlikely to have the boldness needed to succeed. Neocolonialism is a system that is weaved into France’s global power and it may not be removed without impacting negatively on the country’s national interests. Undoing it will require sacrifices for greater good that few can make, especially under the current economic climate and short-term pressures to pursue national interests.

Contestations over solutions to the eurozone debt crisis and France’s role in the Germany- led economic agenda of the EU have dominated the French elections. Broader questions of foreign policy and relations with regions like Africa were marginal. Domestic concerns over largely domestic imperatives decided the electoral race.

The extent to which ideological questions have found expression during the tensely contested elections is linked to whether France should toe the German line on tough austerity measures or if, given the unpopularity of austerity measures in Europe and France in particular, France should consider pushing for less punishing solutions to the problem. In this regard, the differences between the conservative euro-enthusiasts represented by Nicolas Sarkozy who supported the German measures, and a mix of nationalists, socialists and euro sceptics who resisted austerity measures, became sharp.

We can only read between the lines for implications on foreign policy. There is a clear distinction between socialists’ commitment to reforms on the global order to bring about greater fairness and justice, and conservatives’ generally pro status quo position. Socialists are also worried about the dangers of financialisation of global capitalism and the power of unregulated markets, faceless forces of influence, vis-à-vis that of elected governments. They are much more worried than their conservative counterparts about the ramifications of transnational challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, global epidemics and poverty.

On this basis, a socialist government may be expected to be more open to dialogue with developing countries and Africa about the reform of the United Nations Security Council, the Bretton Woods Institutions of the IMF and the World Bank, in order to achieve a fairer system of global governance. But whether they will be willing to push proactively for such reform is dependent on the outcomes of a cost-benefit analysis that is conducted at Elysée later. It could be that Hollande would not be willing to risk a rift with other global powers by caving in to the demands of the developing countries in order not to lose the economic support his government will need to achieve growth levels he has promised. There will also be the impact of the power of the bureaucracy in France, which does not change with every election, that has become accustomed to traditional positions.

The expectation that a socialist president will want to go further than his conservative predecessor on the question of redefining the relations between France and African countries is understandable. Sarkozy understood that the France-Afrique framework needed change as it has for decades been based on neocolonial impulses and paternalism. Although not believing in progressive transformation of these relations, Sarkozy was bold enough to pronounce early on in his presidency that he would renegotiate military and security agreements between France and its former colonies, that he would seek stronger relations with non-French-speaking countries like South Africa and that he would also diversify its economic relations. But as we have seen, this proved easier said than done for Sarkozy. He was hamstrung by his own lack of passion for this promise, unwillingness to risk short-term benefits for a long-term vision and his sheer enjoyment of France’s lordship over Francophone Africa, whose support was critical to get French citizens appointed into key UN positions and the support for its resolutions in UN debates.

Whatever his political and ideological inclinations to the contrary, Hollande is likely to maintain the status quo in respect of Africa-France relations. The rhetoric of new paradigm, equal partnership and mutual benefits will continue to mask a disturbing picture of paternalism that helps divide the continent along the lines of colonial tradition.

Of course, the onus is also on Francophone African countries to redefine their relationship with France. For the neo-colonial relations between Africa and former colonial powers is no longer just an artifact of the designs from the West, but have been buttressed by willingness on the part of African countries and the leaders we do not deserve to form part of the neo-patrimony. They have been willing partners in this. At times, they have encourage colonial powers to maintain paternal relations by begging for aid and by rejecting the idea of a renaissance of Africa.

• Siphamandla Zondi is an honorary professor of politics and development studies at UNISA and a director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

This article first appeared in a shorter version in The Witness newspaper

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