About 3,000 French troops have now entered the war in Mali, at the request of Malian President Dioncounda Traoré. Television shows Malian citizens cheering them as, alongside the Malian army, they head to battle against Islamist rebels who have taken over the entire Northeast of the country and had seemed ready to conquer the rest of it. Yet doubts are expressed by some, given France's recent historical role in West Africa.
After the Second World War, Europe's two major remaining colonial powers, France and the United Kingdom, found that they could no longer rule their African colonies as before. Yet for reasons mostly economic but also geopolitical and nationalistic, they were not willing to give them up entirely, and sought mechanisms to maintain control. This replacement for colonial rule came in the form of what Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, called "neocolonialism". By this Nkrumah meant maintaining effective control by means of outside-directed economic, political, diplomatic and, sometimes, military means.
For France, neocolonialism came in the form of what today is called "Françafrique".
France recognized the nominal independence of African colonies in exchange for which local ruling elites remained subordinate to French interests. French companies got favorable trade and development deals, and the currencies of the former colonies were to be the West African and Central African CFA Francs, with France playing a major role in monetary policy. The French military was allowed access to bases in the African countries, initially to ward off "communist" challenges.
Françafrique involves institutional structures in both France and Africa, and is tightly tied to the French president's office and to French undercover services. Various crimes, including corruption and murder, have been carried out under its aegis. It has often worked in tandem with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and also British and other European intelligence services.
Almost all the French colonies in Africa were at one time or another forced to accept arrangement. There were exceptions. The president of Guinea, Ahmed Sekou Touré, refused to enter into agreements limiting his country's national sovereignty. In reprisal, departing French colonial employees destroyed as much infrastructure and equipment as they could. In Togo, the first president, Sylvanus Olympio, decided to ally himself with the United States instead of France. His reward, in 1963, was a bullet. The shooter was a Togolese sergeant in the French army, Etienne Eyadéma, whose stated gripe was that Olympio was trying to keep the Togolese army small so as to save money, thus denying jobs to soldiers like himself. To nobody's surprise, Eyadéma became president, a faithful servant of French neocolonial interests for 38 years.
This was the pattern that followed for decades. African rulers who were faithful to Françafrique, such as President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote-D'Ivoire, stayed in power while those who objected were overthrown. Eventually, this "Françafrique" system came to include other francophone countries in Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that had never been French colonies, and even the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea.
"Françafrique" brought France some very unsavory friends, many of whom had been soldiers either in the French colonial army or in the French army proper, and who shot their way into power with French connivance. One example of many was Hissene Habré, the dictator of Chad, now awaiting trial for crimes against humanity that cost thousands of innocent lives.
Françafrique ended the life of one of the most outstanding left-wing leaders of post-colonial Africa. Thomas Sankara became president of Upper Volta in 1983 and changed its name to Burkina Faso. He set out on a socialist program that included land reform and other policies beneficial to the working class and poor farmers. In 1987 Sankara was killed in a French-backed military coup headed by Blaise Compoaré, another ex soldier of the colonial forces, who is today the president.
The result of all this French "help" for its former African colonies has been that many are among the poorest countries in the world, with abysmal standards of education and health. Yet Mali and its neighbors have fabulous subsoil wealth.
The end of Françafrique has been a major demand of the communist left in France, and also of the African left. In last year's French presidential elections, the victorious Socialist Party candidate and now president, Francois Hollande promised to accomplish this. But the rise of China in African economic affairs, competing with France for resources and markets, has given Françafrique another reason to exist. A pretext is "the war against terrorism".
The overthrow of Gadaffi of Libya last year can be seen as partly a Françafrique operation. Gadaffi's Libya, with its vast supplies of oil, natural gas and subterranean water, and especially with its ability to out-invest and out-purchase French interests in trade and financial matters, was a very big threat. The president of France at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, was gung ho to use violence against Gadaffi. The other NATO powers joined in, including especially the United States whose pressure in the United Nations got the disastrous "humanitarian intervention" in Libya underway.
On Sunday, the French defense minister, Jean Yves le Drian, had a little slip of the tongue: He swore that France's goal is nothing less than the "reconquest" of the whole of Mali.
Perhaps he meant "liberation," n'est ce pas?
Photo: A French soldier secures a perimeter in Mali on Jan. 21. Jerome Delay/AP