The Changing Face of France in Africa

This week, many African heads of state will attend the 24th France-Africa summit in Cannes. Behind the glitz, the summit may mark a watershed in France’s relationship with Africa. France is preparing for its presidential elections this May, and as that battle for the presidency heats up, so, too, does the contest to forge new ties with Africa.

In the post-Cold War era, “multilateralism” has become the latest political buzzword. Moreover, mistakes in Africa during the 1990’s, particularly in Rwanda, together with corruption scandals, have put pressure on French leaders to bring dramatic changes in foreign policy. In their wake, a notable shift has emerged, with a new generation of politicians claiming to herald a fresh approach and profound changes in French policy towards Africa.

However, much work remains to be done to consolidate that shift. President Jacques Chirac launched important reforms such as redeploying French military forces in Africa, and restructuring how France distributes aid. But he has been unable to integrate these individual measures into a more concrete vision that could address the neo-colonial links that still beset Franco-African relations.

Moreover, African affairs, and international politics more generally, do not seem to be a priority for the 2007 presidential candidates. Ségolène Royal, despite having been raised in Senegal when it was a French colony, appears disinterested in Africa, and her opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has evinced an interest in Africa only in the context of illegal immigration. The stark truth is that without strong political will and clear arguments, any future French president is unlikely to curb the strength of lobby groups and old networks that have dominated France’s relationship with Africa.