Retooling Françafrique

I've never been a big fan of reading the entrails of press releases trying to divine signs of intrigue. But there's been one under-reported corner amid the reams of coverage of the Clotilde Reiss saga this week. The European media's cloak-and-dagger speculation has been all about possible prisoner-swap deals cut by the Elysée to get Reiss out of Tehran: speculation fuelled by the recent shuffle of high-profile Iranian prisoners out of French jails - first Majid Kakavand, the Iranian engineer the US were trying to extradite for alleged illegal procurement of US components for Iran's arms industry; then Ali Vakili Rad, convicted in 1994 for assassinating the Shah's last Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar.

But there's been little in the Anglophone media - and scarcely more Francophone coverage - about France's diplomatic wingmen in the Reiss negotiations. The Elysee's short statement after Reiss' release thanked "Mr Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, Mr Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, and Mr Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, for their active role in securing our compatriot’s release."

It would be fascinating to know what Lula and Assad did to help smooth the wheels. Wade, though, clearly wanted everyone to know how helpful he'd been: the Senegalese presidency put out a press statement on the day of Reiss' release with a detailed narrative of shuttle diplomacy between Paris, Dakar and Tehran since October 2009, which he claims sealed the deal on Reiss' release after last-minute meetings in Tehran on 14-15 May between his son, Karim Wade, his foreign minister, and the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It's hard to know how much of this is puff from a president under increasing fire from accusations of corruption and nepotism after a decade of power - Senegal's Socialist Party criticised Wade this week for blowing his own diplomatic trumpet "like an elephant in a china shop".

But what's most interesting about Wade's account is the cast of supporting characters on all the late night Air France flights. Wade says that he initiated discussions on the Reiss dossier unilaterally on a trip to Tehran in October 2009, and was initially encouraged by France; but that after a 2 hour meeting in Dakar in November 2009, he was told by Andre Parant, one of Sarkosy's African affairs advisors, that France wanted Senegal to suspend its diplomatic efforts.

Senegalese efforts were revived, Wade claims, in late March, when his son Karim Wade met at the Elysée (not, of course, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d'Orsay) with Claude Gueant, Sarkozy's chief of staff. From then on, according to Wade's account, Gueant is his point-person as his ministers shuttle back and forth between Tehran, Paris and Dakar.

One way of interpreting this might be to see Senegal's president playing off two factions in Paris: Sarkozy's new foreign policy advisers like Parant, reluctant for Wade to, er, wade in; and older contacts in the Françafrique networks like Gueant (deputy-director of 'arms-to-Angola' Charles Pasqua's cabinet during the 1990s), accustomed to circumventing the Quai d'Orsay to deal straight with France's West African friends in high places.

It's surprising (and widely remarked upon) how these old networks have returned to the Elysée in recent years. When Sarkozy came to power in 2007 much was made of the 'death' of Françafrique, the shadowy post-colonial political-business system which channelled French aid, political support and military muscle to a stable of reliable (if slightly murderous and dictatorial) West and central African leaders, in return for a complex system of double-bribery in which aid and loans trickled back to France as illicit funding for both Gaullist and socialist parties. French influence in Africa was waning, commentators claimed, as the US and new powers like China and Iran offered assistance with fewer strings attached to France's traditional African clients. At the same time, Sarkozy's Blairist new dawn came complete with a Robin-Cook-esque gesture at a new ethical foreign policy: in 2008 Sarkozy's new secretary of state for overseas cooperation, Jean-Marie Bockel, said he wanted to "sign the death certificate of Françafrique." Yet two months later, Bockel was removed from his ministry (allegedly, the New York Times claimed, after he annoyed Gabonese president Omar Bongo, the centre of the Françafrique system since the 1960s, by referring to Gabonese corruption). Meanwhile advisers like Gueant straddle the divide between Sarkozy's young turks (he's been Sarkozy's chief of staff since 2002) and the old Pasqua Africa networks. Most telling is the man who the Senegalese presidency claims accompanied Karim Wade to Tehran in April: "the lawyer Robert Bougi", Bongo's confidant and Jacques Foccart's inheritor as the lynchpin of the Françafrique system. Bougi apparently now also has an advisory role on African affairs at the Elysée.

Françafrique was always as much about stability as corruption: keeping France's reliable friends in power for as long as possible with aid, loans and battalions of French troops stationed at the presidential palaces (Bongo, the lynchpin, was the longest serving non-monarchical head of state in the world, in power for 42 years). So it's interesting that Wade's power play seems at least partly to do with the reported grooming of his son, Karim, to succeed him smoothly as Senegal's next president. The Senegalese press has widely reported that Gueant and Bourgi have been promoting Karim's candidature in Paris. Whether or not that's true, on the other side Andre Parant slipped out to a French regional journalist at the end of April that 'the government' was worried about political unrest in Senegal if Wade undertook a "monarchical succession" (an 'off the record' comment duly published by Republican Lorrain).

So it looks like the reseaux are back, albeit with rivals for Sarkozy's ear. But the Reiss saga shows how fortuitously the old African networks may be serving new purposes for French policy - giving France an oblique diplomatic lever with newly important powers like Iran. Many Francophone West African states - with substantial or majority Mulsim populations and a string of Francophile Muslim presidents at the heart of the old Françafrique networks (Gabon's Bongo, Chad's Deby, Niger's Tanja, Senegal's Wade, Mali's Touré...) - are important in diplomatic configurations not accessible to powers like the UK, US and France - the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, for example, and Tehran's 'two-fingers to the G-20' G-15 group. Iran and some Gulf states are growing investors in West Africa. It's become a bit of a truism that Senegal in particular is Iran's 'bridgehead' in Africa: a major Iranian car factory is due to start exporting from Senegal; they've been promised an oil refinery; and Senegal (along with Zimbabwe, Sudan and Gabon) continues to defend Iran's right to civilian nuclear power and denies that Tehran's making a bomb.

Just when this new polyamoury of France's former colonies is making French columnists faintly wistful for the days of quiet phone calls and cash-stuffed briefcases (and, of course, making the Heritage Foundation priapic with gleeful fear about Shi'a empire-building in West Africa), the cosmopolitan ties of France's old friends in West Africa - tapped into by the oldest of old-school Françafrique operators - suddenly look rather useful. With the French deficit at 7.5%, I wonder how long it can it be before Paris is asking some of its old friends in the Gulf of Guinea to put in a friendly word to a few Gulf State sovereign funds to play nicely? Perhaps there's even a more general point - are former colonial powers, with their culturally-anchored deep networks of oblique international influence, actually peculiarly well-equipped to operate in a new polycentric international order? And is this something that the US lacks?

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