The cosy relations between France and Africa

This file picture taken 16 February 2007 in Cannes shows French President Jacques Chirac (R) talking with President of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore (L) behind Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba

Allegations that African presidents secretly paid money to leading French politicians have recently burst into the mainstream media. But they have caused little surprise to those who follow the often tortuous course of relationships between Paris and governments south of the Sahara.

Unconfirmed rumours of such dealings have circulated for years.

However, the highly specific claims about the value and destinations of secret cash payments - claims made by Robert Bourgi, informal adviser on African affairs to President Nicolas Sarkozy - are new.

The French politicians named in the allegations include the former President Jacques Chirac, the former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and the former head of the far-right Front National Party, Jean-Marie le Pen. All have completely rejected Bourgi's account; some have threatened to sue for defamation.

But whatever the truth about Mr Bourgi's claims, the peculiarly personal nature of the dealings between a succession of French political leaders and certain African counterparts from former French colonies has always fostered suspicion.

Web of alliances

The decades since independence more than 50 years ago saw the development of a web of interests and alliances, often referred to as la francafrique.

Image caption Jacques Foccart (left) was an informal French envoy to Africa for President Charles de Gaulle

Indeed, Mr Bourgi himself epitomises this world, so different from the normal practice of French diplomacy in other continents.

A lawyer rather than a professional diplomat, he has operated in parallel to the official Africa unit in President Sarkozy's Elysee Palace office and the Africa department of the foreign ministry.

He follows in a line of such informal Africanist envoys, including the Gaullist Jacques Foccart and the son of a former president, Jean-Francois Mitterrand (whose missions to carry messages to African presents earned him the nickname "Papa m'a dit" - [Daddy told me]).

There is no doubt that many sub-Saharan leaders, particularly the heads of authoritarian regimes, have powerful reasons to cultivate a sympathetic hearing at the highest levels of French politics.

French intervention

Several governments with traditionally close ties to Paris have a poor record of governance at home, in terms of human rights, corruption and the concentration of power among a tiny ruling circle. And their relations with France and French society have not always been easy.

Some have been the target of police or judicial investigations and most have been the subject of embarrassing media coverage.

On a number of occasions the French authorities have intervened to smooth over such difficulties.

In 2004 Congo-Brazzaville's national police chief, Jean-Francois Ndenguet, was arrested during a visit to France on the orders of judges investigating claims that 353 opposition supporters had disappeared in May 1999, after returning from exile to Brazzaville's Beach river port.

Yet Mr Ndenguet was suddenly released in the middle of the night and allowed to fly home.

In 2007 French government anti-corruption investigators launched a probe into the vast personal assets of the presidents of Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in France and whether these had been funded through illicitly acquired wealth. A full judicial investigation followed.

But in 2009 the Paris prosecutor's office brought a court appeal to halt this process.

This was seen as an overtly political intervention by government, worried that the case would unsettle relations with friendly African regimes.

Africa matters to Paris

Close relations with sub-Saharan countries have been important for successive French governments.

There are regular Franco-African summit conferences and Paris continues to underwrite the fixed exchange rate that pegs the CFA franc currency - used by 14 west and central African states - to the euro.

Image caption Some of those named by Robert Bourgi have threatened to sue

And although Africa is no longer a major business partner for many French companies, it matters to Paris in strategic and diplomatic terms.

Sub-Saharan countries represent one of the largest geographical voting blocs in the United Nations, and their support carries useful moral clout - if fewer votes - in other international organisations.

This year African backing has helped President Sarkozy secure a green light from the UN Security Council for action against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, although South Africa has since condemned the Nato bombing campaign.

It also helped deliver the post of IMF managing director to former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

But the manner in which France manages its relationships south of the Sahara is becoming more routine and less cosy.

As Mr Bourgi's own role shows, President Sarkozy has not really lived up to his own talk of breaking with the traditions of francafrique.

But his government is winding down the permanent French military presence - even in Ivory Coast where it acted on the UN's behalf in April to help ensure the capture of former President Laurent Gbagbo.

And French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has begun to revive a policy focus on governance and democracy that had been sidelined over the past few years.

Mr Juppe has publicly criticised Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade for attempting to tilt constitutional rules to facilitate his re-election bid next year.

But it is too early to say the old cosy relationships are gone for ever.

France was quick to congratulate Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of old ally Omar Bongo, when he controversially succeeded his late father as president of Gabon in 2009.

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