France: Searching for Lost Glory in Africa
Published Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Emboldened by its exploits in Libya, France is seeking to reassert its presence in Africa via its military. Yet France’s failure to change its attitude towards its former colonies is a major cause of its inability to revive its former influence.
Nouakchott – “We are facing a difficult situation against well-armed groups,” said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. He was trying to justify his country’s lapses in its latest African quagmire in Mali.
Paris is well aware of what it means to take on insurgent forces in what is effectively a guerrilla war, given its long record of failed military interventions in Africa – most recently last Saturday’s botched commando operation in Somalia.
With its influence in Africa waning, France proclaimed, among other things, its support for the revolutionaries of Libya. France had previously been Europe’s staunchest supporter of the late Muammar al-Gaddafi. It allowed him to pitch his tent at the Élysée, and indulged him as the self-styled king of African kings. It went even further, promoting Gaddafi’s entente with Qatar and paving the way for his rapprochement with the West.
Yet in Benghazi, Tripoli, and other Libyan cities, the French joined the war on the side of the rebels – bombing away while confidently expecting to obtain a substantial share of the reconstruction contracts.
But French hopes quickly faded, due to problems with Qatar and threats by some of Gaddafi’s supporters to expose some of his dubious deals with the Élysée, including those related to Sarkozy’s election campaign funding.
France has been on the retreat in many parts of Africa for decades, but Libya seemed to whet its appetite for further military adventures. Were it not for its relative decline as a political and military power, the continent would have suffered more than it could bear.
The French continue to talk of linking their former African colonies through a network of military cooperation treaties that give French forces access to land, naval, and air bases. The network would enable France to intervene at the request of these countries’ governments to counter internal or external threats. Yet France’s military presence on the continent has been reduced to just several hundred, based in Chad and Côte D’Ivoire.
It has launched a number of unsuccessful commando operations in Africa, including a bid last year to free a French hostage in Mali. He was killed when French forces mounted a raid to free him, even though the kidnappers were prepared to hand him over in exchange for detainees held in an Algerian jail.
The French have a habit of recklessly seeking to free their hostages abducted in Africa, while other Europeans have demonstrated that the payment of ransom in such situations is a more effective method.
Observers attribute France’s low standing in Africa – after decades of wielding enormous clout – to mismanagement and arrogance. The French are no longer welcome in countries which used to exalt France and turn to the country for solutions.
Whereas the Chinese seek to befriend African governments, the French have put forth a more militaristic face. All the while, France laments the declining prestige and influence of its francophone project.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.