When do empires die? The late François-Xavier Verschave, economist and founder of the pressure group Survie, coined the term Françafrique to denote the Fifth Republic’s suffocating relation to its former African colonies. The pun – France à fric – was intended. With Jacques Chirac on trial for municipal corruption while mayor of Paris, the Franco-Lebanese lawyer Robert Bourgi has alleged that the ex-president and his Gaullist sidekick Dominique de Villepin helped themselves to some $20 million in bungs from African dictators between 1995 and 2005. Both men have denied the allegations and issued writs. Chirac has pleaded memory loss to avoid having to show his face at the corruption trial, but remembers enough to know that Bourgi’s allegations are false in all details.
Since nominal decolonisation, the Quai d’Orsay has sustained an imposing list of African client despots. In part it’s a question of strategic resource control. France is more dependent on nuclear power than any other country, for which it relies heavily on uranium from its ex-colony Niger – and, in the old days, from Bokassa’s Central African Republic. Gabon, in particular, has been an extraction bonanza. As the former CEO of Elf-Aquitaine, Loïk Le Floch-Prigent, admitted last year, ‘Gabonese oil is very cheap, about four or five dollars a barrel to extract, and then it is resold at eighty dollars a barrel.’ Elf-Aquitaine produced lubricants for more than motor vehicles. It maintained a €200 million fund that greased the palms of a generation of French politicos, as emerged in the 2003 corruption trial.
While Bourgi was blowing the gaff on Chirac and Villepin, Paul Kagame was in Paris for the first official visit by a Rwandese head of state for 17 years. In 2006 France, piqued by charges of complicity in the 1994 genocide, launched a freelance judicial inquiry into the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana, which triggered the massacres. The judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, pinned the blame squarely on Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, making the bizarre accusation that Kagame, a Tutsi, had set out to provoke the genocide of his own people in order to seize power. Now Nicolas Sarkozy is keen to mend fences: Kagame is no longer so close to his former anglophone backers in the West and France wants to keep up a presence in the Great Lakes region. The RPF was once denounced as ‘Khmer noir’ by Sarko’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who helped launch the 1994 intervention as foreign minister under François Mitterand; he has found reasons to be out of the country during Kagame’s visit.