With a bit of a breeze you might just catch the reek wafting off the Champs Elysées since yesterday. The French presidential palace never smells particularly good but this one, as the wine connoisseurs say, has got quite a nose. The occasion is the Franco-African summit, at which President Jacques Chirac has pledged to launch France’s “new partnership” with the troubled continent. As a former colonial power, France knows quite well what Africa’s troubles are; it continues to be responsible for many of them. But Chirac, who appears to believe he has of late restored France’s glory and prestige in the world, is going to use the summit to do something extraordinary. He is going to make those troubles worse.
The summit has already gained notoriety for the presence of one man who shouldn’t be here, and the absence of another who should. Chirac invited Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, despite a European Union travel ban on the Maximum Leader and dozens of his henchmen. Mugabe earned his ban with a quaintly named “land reform” scheme that ordered white farmers — native Zimbabweans — off their land. The seizures have been enforced by armed gangs of vigilantes. Several white farmers have been murdered; thousands have fled. The country is now desperately short of food, because those who have taken over the land have neither the means nor the ability to farm it. It was a story you might have read about a few months ago — before the Mugabe government ordered all foreign journalists out of the country.
The man who should be here is Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. The G’s are silent but the man is not. He is in fact talking quite loudly, if nervously — insisting the peace accord he agreed to in France under the tutelage of Chirac, to end a civil war that has raged since September, was not really binding as such. The accord provided for rebels to get the key posts of defense minister and interior minister in a new power-sharing government. The Ivory Coast army says the rebels can have some of the power, but that those two seats are out of the question. The country is now effectively split in two, with rebels in control of the mainly Muslim north and the army holding down the mainly Christian south. In between them sits the French army — 3,000 soldiers the “multilateralist” Chirac dispatched without as much as a by-your-leave from either the European Union or the nation itself. Gbagbo has decided not to attend the summit. He is staying at home, ever more tenuously clinging to power.
The unhappy truth is that no one in the rest of the world would care about this particular bit of French meddling, but for two salient facts: one, Ivory Coast is the world’s top producer of cocoa, and the chaos has wreaked havoc on the commodities market. Two, Ivory Coast is a former French colony, and there are 16,000 French citizens still there. The rest have been escorted out by the French army, fearing for their lives. French interests are being targeted, and protesters in the street regularly hold up signs begging for help. From the United States. To get rid of the French.
“We are putting Africa back at the center of France’s priorities,” Chirac said before the summit, without noticeable irony. What he is doing is holding European policy on the suffering continent hostage to France’s interests. The European Union canceled its African summit because it did not want Mugabe around; but Chirac argued that there was no hope of “progress” without a chance to talk face-to-face. You can imagine how closely Mugabe will heed the French president’s “concerns.” Mugabe has been in power since Zimbabwe won independence in 1980, giving him as much insight as anyone into how France operates on the continent. He was in power in 1994, when the French army in Rwanda did nothing to stop the genocide of 800,000 people, while escorting to safety the widow of the president and other relatives involved in the slaughter. He has seen the flood of French companies — in oil and construction — carve out their respective fiefs. Jacques Chirac may well have illusions about France’s role in Africa. Robert Mugabe, it is safe to say, does not.
Mugabe will return to Zimbabwe with the imprimatur of the summit, having had an audience with Chirac and a seat at the table with the continent’s other leaders. The worthy EU snub will have been diminished, and Mugabe’s grimy luster polished. Meanwhile the French presidency announced at the summit late Thursday that French troops will now “enforce” the shaky peace deal in Ivory Coast. It is symbolic of France’s policy-making that the French troops have already been accused of working in favor of both the rebels and the government. The nation is in chaos, and at war. Chirac will continue to meddle and muddle. And we will hear how France is taking the necessary steps for the good of its “new partnership” with Africa.
But we will not hear of the one good thing that France could do for the dire, blood-soaked, impoverished continent — because Chirac will not do it. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy enacts a baroque system of tariffs and quotas which, according to the Wall Street Journal Europe, means that EU residents pay nearly three times the world price for sugar. The exorbitant price leads to a huge surplus, which then gets dumped in African countries at much lower prices. African sugar-producers are blocked from EU markets abroad, and have to compete against cut-rate product at home. Chirac’s government has fought bitterly to maintain the subsidies as the European Union expands eastward. The subsidies hurt Europeans and Africans dearly; the estimated cost to EU citizens alone is $1.5 billion every year. And the number-one recipient of the EU’s farm payments? Need you ask?