The visit to Paris this week of Rwandan President Paul Kagame coincided with coverage in the French press of allegations accusing former French President Jacques Chirac of accepting suitcases full of cash as kickbacks from African heads of state. Combined, the two stories highlight the ways in which France under President Nicolas Sarkozy is turning a page in its relations with Africa, but also the ways in which the legacy of the past has proven hard to escape. In this, Sarkozy's presidency, like that of U.S. President Barack Obama in its own way, is likely to be a transitional one, rather than the transformational one that was promised.
But if this is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," it's worth noting the way things have changed. To begin with, the Kagame visit is notable not just for the way in which it cemented the two sides' decision to focus on the future, while letting the unresolved conflicts of the past remain just that -- unresolved, but in the past -- it is also symbolic of Sarkozy's promise of a new beginning in relations between France and Africa. The change was first hinted at in his widely derided speech at Dakar in 2007 and later promised in the 2008 Defense White Paper, which committed the French military to reducing its forward base structure on the continent. Sarkozy went on to announce that France would renegotiate its shadowy security agreements with African countries to bring the accords, which dated back to the post-colonial era, into the 21st century.
The intentions were certainly high-minded. But as the allegations of suitcases full of cash being ferried from African capitals to Elysée as recently as four years ago highlight, there are not just skeletons tucked away in the closet of France-Africa relations, but many living, breathing people still active on the political scene today. That, in turn, is symbolic of the ways in which Sarkozy's Africa policy has, unsurprisingly, not been as radical a shift as announced. The promised base reduction has not yet materialized, although most of the archaic security agreements have been renegotiated, despite African leaders' reluctance to forego security guarantees that essentially amount to job security.* Tellingly, when a rebel column bent on deposing Chadian President Idriss Déby raced across Chad and entered the capital N'Djamena in 2008, although the 1,000-plus French military contingent stationed there did not intervene decisively, French aircraft did provide critical reconnaissance to Déby's troops, with some reports suggesting that French special forces joined the fighting alongside them.