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France's Hold On Former African Colonies Important To Its Sense Of Self


The turmoil in Algeria, as well as in Mali, is a reminder of the complicated relationship that still exists between France and many of its former African colonies. Howard French has spent many years thinking and writing about that relationship. He's an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; and a former, longtime foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Mr. French, welcome to the program.

HOWARD FRENCH: Good afternoon.

CORNISH: So it was just - I think less than six months ago that French President Francois Hollande vowed that the country would reset its relationship with its former colonies in Africa. And he said he would help bring an end to something called Francafrique. What is Francafrique?

FRENCH: Francafrique is a dense network of political ties, patronage, business interests and corruption that link - in surprisingly resilient ways - France to its former African possessions.

CORNISH: And so how does that play out in France interventionism?

FRENCH: France's hold on these former possessions has been very important to France's sense of itself, as a nation; to its global ambitions; to its pretentions as a near superpower; and to employment in France, as well as to things like political patronage. Hollande is not the first of the French leaders to vow to reinvent or break away from the old patterns. But the old patterns tend to cling, or to persist, because of these sort of fundamental qualities that they have, which are so hard to get away from.

CORNISH: So Howard French, can you give us an example of a moment in history which really shows France swooping into a nation; and either propping up a government, or backing one they like, or getting rid of one they don't?

FRENCH: Sure. My very first experience - dramatic experience - as a foreign correspondent was in 1983, in Chad; which was under attack, at the time, by an insurgency backed by Libya under Moammar Gadhafi. And France intervened to prop up the state, which would certainly have fallen, had they not done so. France has done this time and again, in one country after another - Central African Republic, in the past; in repeated instances in Gambol, in Ivory Coast. It has helped in civil wars in Senegal, and in various other places. So this is - Mali is part of a big, broad pattern of French involvement and as a kind of guarantor - in the last instance - of the integrity of the states that France itself created.

CORNISH: Now, put this in the context, then, of what's happening in Mali right now. Is this different from the old Francafrique model?

FRENCH: Yes and no. So France is responding to an acute crisis in Mali. There was an advance, very dramatically and somewhat unexpected, by the - sort of coalition of Islamic rebel movements, toward the capital; and France felt that it had to act in an emergency fashion, to stop that advance. However, in a longer-term sense, what this crisis demonstrates is that France has not managed to foster the creation of states that can stand on their own.

Throughout this French-speaking zone of former French colonies, the national currency of almost all of these countries is, in fact, itself a derivative of the French franc. That shows the degree to which the interests of France, and the interests of these countries, are intermingled.

CORNISH: From the point of view of African people in these nations, is there a kind of suspicion, or worry, when France comes to intervene?

FRENCH: In Mali itself, I think there's an overwhelming feeling of relief that France may perhaps save the day - is the best way to put it - against this Islamic extreme insurgency. However, I think all around French-speaking West Africa, even people who are cheering this - in this first, instant sort of response - will be saying to themselves, here we go again. Here's a reminder, once more, of how we can never really escape the embrace of France; how we can never really achieve true independence.

CORNISH: Howard French, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FRENCH: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: That's Howard French, associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and author of the book "A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy And Hope Of Africa."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.