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France’s former colonies, 50 years on

August 23, 2010

 Over the last week, a string of African nations have been busy celebrating 50 years of independence from France. Almost inevitably, the prickly relationship between Paris and her former colonies has come under the microscope.

 Sarkozy with former President Bongo in Gabon.

Under President Omar Bongo, Gabon represented the clearest example of Francafrique – the intertwined political and economic interests of the French government and the elite in former African colonies.


But, under Bongo’s son, Ali, Libreville has been sending out a different message and on the eve of Gabon’s independence celebrations this week, Bongo junior announced $4.5 billion in business deals with Indian and Singaporean firms.


Bongo son, whose Anglophile tendencies are underscored by his U.S. university education and his decision to send his son to school at the prestigious British public school, Eton, followed this up with an announcement that Gabon would no longer be bound by exclusive ties with France.


But Gabon is not the only former French colony making noises about watering down ties. During independence day celebrations in April, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade triumphantly announced that he would be closing down France’s military base in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. The details of when French soldiers would actually be leaving may be more nuanced, but the message was clear.


Chad’s President Idriss Deby – who has frequently relied on French soldiers based in his country for help fighting off rebels, but now enjoys vastly improved relations with neighbouring former rebel-backer, Sudan – has also cranked up the rhetoric. During independence day festivities, Deby said that France would have to renegotiate its military agreement with Chad, and pay more to keep a base there, according to French media.


These moves are taking place against a backdrop of frustrations in some circles that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has failed to live up to his 2007 promise for a more honest relationship with Africa. Some analysts and media also speak of divisions between Sarkozy’s presidency and his foreign ministry over how to deal with Africa.


In Congo Republic, where French oil firms are behind a resurgence in oil production, French soldiers marched, for the first time, in independence day celebrations.


An incident in Togo has also highlighted continued high-level French influence and drawn anti-French vitriol on the internet. A uniformed French military advisor to the head of Togo’s army was caught on camera threatening a local journalist who took photos of him directing riot police at a demonstration. The video has scored over 700,000 hits on You Tube’s website and sparked thousands of mostly angry comments.


How are France’s former colonies faring, 50 years after independence? Is Francafrique dead, or is it alive and kicking?


Are African nations finally breaking away from Paris, emboldened by courtiers from new, emerging powers hungry for its resources? Or will France always maintain that special tie with her former colonies on the continent?

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