Will France's Nicolas Sarkozy be good for Africa?
The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president has been greeted with consternation across much of French-speaking Africa, where there are fears that it could presage a radical change in policy towards the continent. Immigration is certain to dominate Franco-African relations during Mr Sarkozy's presidency. While he was interior minister Mr Sarkozy oversaw the introduction of tough new immigration legislation which not only ended automatic citizenship for foreign workers who had completed ten years of residency but required immigrants from outside the EU to sign a contract committing them to learning French and respecting the principles of the French Republic. One of his most controversial acts came in 2003, when he authorised the repatriation of illegal immigrants on weekly charter flights—nicknamed "Sarkozy charters"—to Senegal and Mali. Although these flights were suspended following strong domestic and international criticism, the French government has continued forcibly to repatriate illegal African immigrants on scheduled Air France flights, and there are fears that this trend could increase in line with Mr Sarkozy's tougher stance on immigration.
During his election campaign, Mr Sarkozy vowed to press ahead with the introduction of "selective migration" to France, with the aim of encouraging immigration of foreign professionals while at the same time clamping down on illegal immigration and ending the policy of reuniting immigrant families. This has made Mr Sarkozy extremely unpopular with the general population in Africa, and his visits to Benin and Mali in 2006 were greeted with angry street demonstrations. In an effort to temper his tough comments on immigration, the French president has recently proposed creating a "Mediterranean Union", which would involve the countries of the EU, North Africa and the Middle East in a regional economic community based on the old EEC model. Although this could offer more opportunities for Africans to legally migrate to and work in the EU, most African migrants remain fearful that they will be the main losers from a tightening of French immigration policy.
Mr Sarkozy has also pledged to put an end to the murky dealings between France's political and business elite and Africa's more corrupt regimes, a relationship known as “Françafrique”. Mr Sarkozy first openly criticised this arrangement during his visit to Mali in 2006, when he called for an end to the "paternalism and clientelism" of the past, and its replacement with a more "adult, responsible and transparent" partnership with African governments. This was widely interpreted as a criticism of the former French president, Jacques Chirac, who over the previous 12 years had built up an extensive web of personal relationships with African leaders, including those of dubious democratic credentials such as Idriss Déby-Itno of Chad and Omar Bongo of Gabon. With the transfer of power in France set to usher in a new political generation, there is widespread expectation that the old networks of influence established under Mr Chirac will be swept away.
However, given Mr Sarkozy's close association with two of France's largest companies in Africa—he telecommunications and industrial multinational Bouygues (for which he worked as a lawyer), and investment and industrial holding group Bolloré—coupled with his sympathy for the French Confederation of Business Enterprises, it is likely that Mr Sarkozy will simply replace Mr Chirac's network of influence with one of his own. There are already signs that Mr Sarkozy is forming new African alliances following his visits to Morocco, Algeria, Benin, Mali and Senegal in 2006. His new allies include the former Ivorian prime minister, Alassane Ouattara--at whose marriage ceremony Mr Sarkozy officiated--the Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, and the Algerian head of state, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, all of whom were quick to congratulate Mr Sarkozy on his election victory.
In the medium to long term there is also speculation that Mr Sarkozy could implement a move towards multilateralism in French policy in Africa. Since the independence era in the 1960s, most of French-speaking Africa—in particular Central Africa—has been viewed both in Paris and in other European capitals as a unique sphere of French interest. However, in recent months there have been increasing signs that the French government is tiring of its awkward relationship with some of its less savoury African allies, in particular Mr Déby-Itno in Chad, and that it would like other nations to help shoulder the financial and military burden of stabilising this region. France currently has around 7,000 troops based permanently in Africa, in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Dakar (Senegal), Djibouti, Libreville (Gabon) and N'Djamena (Chad), and there is growing domestic pressure to reduce French military operations in Africa, notably in Côte d'Ivoire. As France is currently at the forefront of efforts to create an international peace-keeping force to be deployed along the border between Chad, the Central African Republic and the Darfur region of Sudan, now could be the ideal time for Mr Sarkozy to steer French policy in Africa onto a more multilateral course.
However, in the short term Africa is likely to remain a low priority for Mr Sarkozy, as his first months in office are expected to be dominated by domestic issues. As a result, France's African policy is likely to focus on immigration and security concerns, and Mr Sarkozy has yet to indicate how his government intends to address France's outstanding "Grand Dossier" of African issues, which include the crises in Darfur, Chad, the CAR, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea.
May 23rd 2007
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire