France: not much new for Africa

2012-05-09 00:00

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. Time will tell whether Hollande will bring France closer to a non-paternalistic relationship with Francophone Africa.

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.

Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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