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The Dark Side To French-African Ties

President Francois Hollande's visit to Mali, after French troops routed Islamist extremists, brings to mind France's long relationship with its former colonies in Africa. African troops helped France and the allies defeat Hitler's forces, and Hollande expressed gratitude for that while he was in Mali. But there's also a dark side to the French-African connection.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. French forces are in Mali, fighting the spread of Islamist extremists. Before its independence in 1960, Mali was a colony known as French Sudan. France retains a close, sometimes love-hate relationship with many of its former colonies in Africa. The network of political and business ties, often fraught with patronage and corruption, even has a name - Francafrique.

French President Francois Hollande is not the first French president to say that he wants to do away with that old relationship. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has this quick history lesson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTEORS)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Throngs of exuberant Malians encircled French President Francois Hollande when he visited the newly liberated city of Timbuktu in early February. The dramatic scenes were played nonstop on television back in France.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Thank you, France. I'm so grateful for what you've done for Mali.

BEARDSLEY: The war against the Islamist militants who have terrorized Mali's northern population for the last year has strong support in France. Still, analysts couldn't help noticing that France, often referred to in the past as the gendarme de Afrique, was back on the continent en force. The term Francafrique was coined by an Ivory Coast leader in the 1960s, after the colonies were independent. The Cold War had begun, and French President Charles De Gaulle worked to make sure France's former colonies didn't fall into Soviet hands. Francafrique wasn't all bad. But it had a dark side, says historian Antoine Glaser, who's written several books on the subject.

ANTOINE GLASER: What we call Francafrique, there is the two sides of it. There is luggage, with money, that come from African presidency to France...

BEARDSLEY: Did this really happen?

GLASER: Yes. Naturally, this happened.

BEARDSLEY: Glaser is referring to what is a well-known fact in France; that for years, French presidents received suitcases full of cash - to finance their campaigns - from mineral-rich African leaders. The allegations are as recent as Presidents Jacque Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, who left office just last year.

GLASER: These people in power in Africa, it is the way that they buy their impunity. They buy to be secure. They say OK, we pay you, but you just leave us do as we wish. Don't get involved in our affairs. And that's the way it was working.

BEARDSLEY: And of course, those African leaders weren't democratically elected, says Glaser. They were supported by the same French presidents receiving the suitcases of cash. French business was also intertwined in the relationship, as oil companies gave kickbacks to the African rulers who financed the French politicians.

(SOUNDBITE CROWD CHATTER)

BEARDSLEY: Far from the desert sands of Timbuktu, Frenchmen discuss the Mali war in a village cafe, in the middle of Brittany. France's special relationship with Africa means something to people here. Machon Navier(ph) says he's proud of France and Mali.

MACHON NAVIER: (Through translator) Hollande went in alone but for the moment, he's done better than all the coalitions. The French haven't always been virtuous in Africa, no. But we at least tried to bring development. We weren't like the Chinese or the Russians, who completely exploit the Africans for their riches.

BEARDSLEY: Africa is important for France's self-image and for its place on the world stage, says analyst Glaser. When Hollande was elected in May, he promised to hit the reset button with Africa. He called for replacing Francafrique with a common European Union policy toward Africa.

But speaking in Mali's capital of Bamako, Hollande evoked the special French-African relationship. He remembered the African troops who fought for France in World War II.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: I won't forget that when France was attacked and needed allies, who came to help us? Africa and Mali. Merci, Mali! Glaser says Hollande's speech was astounding familiar.

GLASER: The way he spoke in Bamako, it was really like in the old days - like a de Gaulle, you know. It was like de Gaulle in Brazzaville - you know, was saying you the African, you came to save us, and now we are coming to save you!

BEARDSLEY: Glaser says no one thinks Hollande is getting kickbacks, and French involvement in Mali is more virtuous this time. But after the military intervention, there will no doubt be political involvement. And then problems will begin just as in the past, Glaser says. It's hard to end a policy like Francafrique overnight.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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