“We are not any old country… We are France, and as president of the republic it will fall to me to express the aspirations of France: Peace, respect, and the capacity to give peoples the right to free themselves from dictatorship.
“Everything that I do anywhere in the world will be in the name of the values of the republic.”
Africa’s old guard has been warned. There will be a new man in the Elysée on May 15, — and Francois Hollande promises to bring a moral dimension to French foreign policy, which, if followed through, would mark a significant change from the deal-making pragmatism of Nicolas Sarkozy’s patchy engagement with Africa.
France’s outgoing president could sometimes talk the language of reform — pointedly receiving the democratically elected presidents of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Benin, Thomas Boni Yayi, early in his presidency.
Later, he deployed a French military force to help eject election-loser Laurent Gbagbo from the Ivorian presidency and in support of Libyans rebelling against Muammar Gaddafi.
But Sarkozy also maintained a chummy friendship with the Bongo regime in Gabon — despite obvious doubts over the credibility of the 2009 election that saw Ali Bongo Ondimba succeed his late father.
He repaired the damage between Rwanda and France — but in image terms, Sarkozy never overcame the dismal impression left by his patronising 2007 Dakar speech on the development and cultural progress that Africa still had to make up.
At home, his creation of a hard-faced ministry of immigration and attempts to court the far-right National Front vote soured the relationship with democratic but poor countries in the Sahel.
The absence of any clear long-term strategy or guiding principle in Sarkozy’s approach to Africa creates a clear opening for his successor to put France’s involvement onto a more stable and reform-focused basis.
It would be a natural complement to one of Hollande’s key domestic messages — reassuring French citizens of African and Maghrebi descent that they too are equal citizens.
And it would help him to restore the image of France in the eyes of Africans, particularly the youth, many of whom now feel deep mistrust towards a former colonial power they associate — fairly or not — with an unprincipled readiness to prop up the dictatorial and the corrupt.
Hollande is from a generation that has few connections to the old “francafrique” world of networks and vested interests.
That was also true of Sarkozy, but the outgoing president has been personally close to leaders of French business groups with big African operations, such as Bouygues and Bollore.
Hollande’s circle of foreign policy advisers includes lawyer William Bourdon, known for his involvement in high-profile African human rights cases and the highly respected former head of the French Development Agency, Jean-Michel Severino.
Others include the radical party member of parliament for French Guyana, Christiane Taubira, and the Algerian-born Euro-MP Kader Arif — who is a strong advocate of a clear break with the cronyism of “francafrique”.
All this is not to say that Hollande will abandon long-standing bilateral ties that France has always seen as key to its national interests — such as secure supplies of oil and uranium needed for France’s nuclear power, or the struggle to contain terrorism.
Resource producers such as Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Niger will remain valued partners.
But where France can bring political influence to bear, such as Congo and Gabon, Hollande is likely to quietly press for reform and greater political freedom.
Equally, desperate to create jobs at home, the new president will surely take on board the concerns of French business, for whom Africa remains a valuable market.
The Council of French Investors in Africa has 1 000 member firms, with a combined turnover of 40bn euro (US$52 billion) — and it estimates that non-member companies account for at least a further 12 billion euro in activity.
The geographical pattern of French diplomatic and development activity could also shift under a Hollande presidency — from the richer to poorer countries, and those with the strongest record on democracy and human rights.
French aid to Africa amounted to US$3,9 billion in 2009/10, according to the latest figures available from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.
Top of the list came Ivory Coast (US$699 million), while oil-rich Congo-Brazzaville got US$516 million and Cameroon US$213 million.
The figures may be somewhat distorted by the impact of debt relief, but the relative neglect of low-income states is striking — mirroring a worldwide trend where the least developed states get only about a sixth of the aid budget.
A French shift could certainly work to the benefit of countries such as Niger and Benin, or even some anglophone states like Tanzania and Ghana.
However, the new president will certainly be careful to maintain solid assistance for countries that are seen as key French allies and building blocks of regional stability in West and Central Africa.
There is no doubt that Hollande will maintain the strong French support for Senegal following the democratic election of President Macky Sall; indeed, he sent former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin as his personal envoy to President Sall’s inauguration.
Equally, the fact that Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara happens to be a personal friend of Sarkozy — and met him a day after his election defeat in the Elysée — will not deter Hollande from seeking to establish a good relationship with Ivory Coast, a key economic partner for France.
Ouattara, as current chairman of the West African regional body Ecowas, is also playing a central role in efforts to resolve the crisis in Mali.
There are members of Hollande’s socialist party who were close to Gbagbo, but Hollande himself was careful to keep his distance in recent years.
It is no surprise to see Hollande’s election so warmly welcomed by Gbagbo supporters — who called his election defeat “an end to democracy through bombing”.
But it is unlikely that the new French president of France will allow himself to be drawn into simplistic partisan alliances or a left-wing rewrite of “francafrique”.
For Hollande, the key will be reinvigorating the role of basic democratic human rights and development principles in France’s dealings with Africa and providing the sense of direction and strategy that has been absent during the haphazard Sarkozy years.—BBC Online.