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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The French In Africa Don't Mess Around

Links: A. French Colonial History In Africa
           B. French Military Presence In Africa
           C. French Anti-Terror Initiative in Africa

As you know by now, when writing these posts, there are some things I like to get out in the open.  I'm French.  Yes, I live in Texas.  I say, "Y'all" and "howdy".  And I'm an American citizen.  But my mother is a French national (dual citizenship) and I spent a great deal of my formative years in France.  French was my first language, and I am very proud of my heritage.  I am very close to my French family and I visit as often as possible.  In fact, in my soon to be released book, I spend an entire chapter highlighting the surprising and sometimes hilarious similarities between my French family and my Kentucky kin in Harlan County, KY.  During the summer of my thirteenth year, my parents decided to bring the two families together - but you'll have to buy the book for that story folks, and believe me, its worth it.  I have equal affection for both sets of relatives, and one day I hope to write a book detailing the history of my Kentucky family.  Today however, we are chatting a bit about France.  More precisely: France in Africa.

I included the first link in order to jump-start the memory back to high school world history.  For the most part, since the demise of the Roman Empire, France has been a major European power.  In 1781, thanks to the presence of the French fleet under Admiral De Grasse, General George Washington defeated British General Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, and the United States gained its independence.  The French Empire, under the royal houses of Bourbon, Orleans, Bonaparte and Bourbon encore une fois, was determined to spread the culture and language of France around the globe (and also locate the odd gold and diamond mines in the mean time).  The French felt very comfortable in Africa, and developed an extensive colonial presence in west Africa in particular (although three million French would eventually make Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria their home, for the purpose of this post, I'm going focus on west Africa, separate from north Africa).  France divided its sub-Saharan colonies into French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa.  Once the drive for independence took root in the late 1950s and 1960s, the French did everything possible to encourage a peaceful and smooth transition.  In fact, during the colonial years, France had been very successful building schools and instilling French language and culture in its colonies.  France invested tremendous sums of money in building ports in Dakar and Abidjan that would act as a springboard to economic growth in the newly independent Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire.  The Napoleonic system of law is still in effect in most francophone countries.  Also in an effort to show the importance of keeping the former African colonies within the French family, France created a currency, the CFA Franc, whose deposits were (and still are) guaranteed by the Bank of France in Paris.  No doubt, the French ended colonialism a bit differently than the Brits, Belgians, Spanish and Portuguese.

For the most part, successive French governments in the 1960s and 1970s did not have to worry much about intervening militarily in the affairs of former colonies (let's not get started on Algeria, which is a subject for a post all to itself).  The francophone community consisted of Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), the Central African Republic, Togo, Benin, Cameroun, Congo-Brazzaville, and Gabon.

At one time or another, the French Foreign Legion was obliged to put down a coup or calm some event of civil unrest, but internal "policing" on behalf of France was expected in many quarters.  What came as a surprise to most, was the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa.  The late 1960s and 1970s introduced the world to terrorism with the blunt arrival of groups like the PLO, the Red Army, and Baader-Meinhof.  Along with the rest of Europe, France had to deal with the scourge of airline hijackings.  The resolution of the conflict in Vietnam, the Egyptian/Israeli Peace Accord, and the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in a time of peace, but it was to be unfortunately short-lived.  The idea that a ragtag army of mountain fighters in Afghanistan, trained and armed by the CIA, could defeat the Soviet military, raised a few eyebrows, to be sure.  The departure of the Russians in Afghanistan created a vacuum which led to the rise of the Taliban, and the inevitable birth of Al-Qaeda.

During the days of the Ottoman Empire, caravans of traders ranged far and wide across west Africa, spreading Islam where it did not exist, and strengthening it where it did. A very strong, traditional brand of Islam took root in the Oasis and desert towns of the Sahel.  The remoteness of places like Gao, Tamanrasset, Agadez and Tombouctou held to their conservative brand of Sunni Islam, which relies so much on discipline and the appropriate deference.  The bad guys moved in like bees to honey.  In the more populous communities of northern Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria, an aggressive, parasitic type of Islam has led to one civil war and appears determined to start another.  In 2013, The French Army was obliged to intervene in Mali, where a small Tuareg rebellion had been hijacked by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM), and had occupied Tombouctou.  Not surprisingly, France poured three thousand soldiers into the conflict and had smashed the uprising in a little over a month.    The French military was also obliged to intervene directly in a civil war in the Central African Republic (how can you have a civil war when you really don't even have a country anymore?).  France has decided to keep a permanent military presence in west Africa, which is welcomed by every francophone country. In fact, the only African leader who voiced opposition was Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (...whatever happened to that guy?).  France has created a military force which is just the right size, with just the right kind of soldiers, to react quickly and decisively in a west African environment.  And don't lose sight of the economic realities in place:  French businesses have billions of euro tied up in the mines in Cote d'Ivoire and Mali, and in the ports of Dakar and Abidjan.  West Africa also presents a security issue for France:  Aside from the fact that everyday Islamic Extremists in Africa use social media to influence their relatives who have emigrated to France, the Élysée Palace cannot afford to lose sight of the uranium that Niger provides, which keeps French nuclear reactors, nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers running.  The trouble in northern Mali that was quelled in 2013, appears to be reorganizing.  Mali has recently undergone a political transformation and is currently in a battle to keep Ebola at bay.  These extremist assholes always pick the best times to cause trouble.  Unfortunately for them, the French are on the spot, and just three days ago, twenty-four Al-Qaeda-in-training never made it to their first big terrorist attack.

If you've been to France, but have never experienced French Africa, you will have such a pleasant surprise.  The French language and culture appears to have seamlessly
strengthened the communities of Conakry and Niamey.  In downtown Abidjan, you can wake up in the morning to Café au lait and croissants and today's edition of Le Figaro (I'm sure le Monde is available as well).  The cars are Peugeot and Renault, and the roads are marked in kilometres.  Any Christian community is bound to be Catholic, and the children grow up with Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, and Lucky Luke.  At the same time, Mopti is Africa, as are Yamoussoukro and Bobo Dioulasso.  I find Africans to be the epitome of true artists.  They are so connected to nature, and forgive so easily.  I have always thought of France as a country of artists as well, although no doubt the line to disagree with me stretches around the block.  I think this is the reason France and her former African colonies have had such a long record of forgiveness and mutual admiration.

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