The Franco-African summit planned for Feb. 20-21 in Paris will give France a chance to revive its involvement in Africa.
The 22nd Franco-African summit will kick off Feb. 20 in Paris amid a torrent of controversies. First, embattled Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will attend, since the French government refused to support an extension of EU sanctions against Zimbabwe unless the travel ban against Mugabe was waived to allow him to enter Paris. Paris felt forced to make this move because without Mugabe, many other African leaders likely would have avoided the summit, and it could have collapsed altogether. Second, there is much ado over Cote d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo’s plans not to attend the summit. Thousands of French soldiers are deployed in Cote d'Ivoire, and Gbagbo's refusal to come to France signals a serious breach in relations between Abidjan and Paris. Other key African leaders expected to attend include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, South African President Thabo Mbeki and King Mohammed VI of Morocco. A total of 45 African leaders are expected. The tensions with certain African presidents overshadow a more important issue: France's dependence upon Africa as a validation of its geopolitical clout. What is called Francophone Africa stretches from the deserts in the north down into central Africa. But France's ability — and willingness — to expend financial resources and maintain influence in Africa has declined in recent years. France always has backed up its claim that it is a leading power in world affairs by wielding influence in Africa. France has had access to Africa due to its former colonial presence on the continent: influence with a host of African countries increases Paris’ dominance over vast natural resources, sea-lanes and markets. However, over the last few decades, this influence has declined as the United States has pushed into African affairs and the state of the French economy has limited Paris’ ability to finance African policy objectives. Now, Paris has a greater need to appear powerful because of its apparent inability to stop a U.S. war on Iraq. But rather than appearing more politically potent, France instead looks more and more desperate. The country’s desperation over its apparent global impotence could lead Paris to adopt more radical policies in the coming days. And the one place it still has the ability — albeit limited — to project power is Africa. Therefore, in the next few days France will try to find ways to strengthen its position on the continent — especially in oil-rich places like Cameroon, Gabon and Algeria — while simultaneously weakening its rivals. France has a long history of intervention and involvement in Africa, and its role there has bolstered its claims that it is a peer of other major European and global powers. Because it cannot compete economically with the United States, it will rely on political-security levers to reaffirm its geopolitical status. The geopolitical imperative for increased French activity in Africa is this: Once the United States expands control over Middle Eastern governments — and oil supplies — Paris will need to make sure that it is not dependent upon those energy sources and can influence supplies elsewhere. Because of its economic constraints, there are few places other than Africa where France can compete globally. Moreover, a number of African governments — like that in Cameroon or Gabon — continue to rely on French political-security cooperation for their survival.