France’s new government moves to reassert neo-imperial power in north Africa

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Rajab 17, 1428 2007-08-01


by M.A. Shaikh (World, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 6, Rajab, 1428)

In the past decade, the US has been able to replace France as the most influential foreign power in former French colonies such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Given the US’s status as the “world’s sole superpower” and its ruthless determination to entrench and exploit that status, it is not strange that France lost its self-confidence as a world power and played second fiddle to Washington even in its own former colonies. But now that the Bush administration’s astonishing arrogance has led to growing worldwide criticism of, and even resistance to, its imperial programmes, France has regained some of its self-confidence as a world power, helped by its recently elected president, Nikolas Sarkozy (pic), and has revealed plans to recover control of its former North African colonies. However, Sarkozy’s plans extend to other African countries – as his recent visit to Libya and his strong pressure on Sudan over Darfur show – and, far from being anti-US, strongly back “the global war on terrorism” (read Islam), which the Bush administration leads.

Elected in May, Sarkozy wasted no time in heading for the former North African colonies to woo their dictatorial rulers to his side. He began his trip by visiting Algeria on July 10, and then quickly moved to Tunisia. Morocco, however, was not on his itinerary. as its relations with Paris have been sour for some time, as a result of France’s backing Algeria in the dispute over the Western Sahara territory. Morocco is also an ally of the US, and is not as rich in oil and gas deposits as Algeria is.

France’s relations with Algeria – the “jewel in the French colonial crown” before it won independence in 1962 – were warm until 2005, when, ironically, Sarkozy’s conservative party championed a law that would have cited the “positive effects of colonialism”. The contentious language was removed but relations remain tense to this day. When, for instance, Sarkozy – then an interior minister – visited Algeria in 2006, he got a cold welcome.

But when, as president, he arrived at Algiers airport for his recent visit, he was warmly received by president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, who had in the past demanded vigorously that France apologise for its colonial-era crimes. Bouteflika should not have received him with any warmth, as Sarkozy refused firmly to apologise for those crimes, in an interview that was published the same day in two Algerian newspapers, El Watan and El Khabar. In the interview he said: “I am for recognition of facts, not for repentance, which is a religious notion and has no place in state-to-state relations.”

Sarkozy added that “younger generations on both sides of the Mediterranean are not expecting their leaders to torture themselves in battling their guilt for the errors or mistakes of the past, because on this account, there would be a lot to do on both sides.” The nearest he could come to admitting guilt was to add: “Certainly there were many dark sides, sufferings and injustices during the 132 years that France spent in Algeria.” And the only remedy he offered for those “injustices and sufferings” was his readiness to “push for cooperation between the two nations’ archives to preserve the memory” of those times.

Apart from the absurdity of the argument that no state should apologise for the crimes it has committed against its subjects simply because “repentance is a religious notion”, Sarkozy’s readiness to cast a part of the blame for those crimes on the Algerian people is astonishing. Equally astonishing is his arrogance in expecting his opposite number to accept his absurd assertions. But even more astonishing – and humiliating – was Bouteflika’s readiness to take his French opposite number’s insults on board and receive him warmly. This brings great humiliation to his own people and country, and explains why most Algerians and Islamic movements want him to quit.

Sarkozy, who must have regarded Bouteflika as a client and ally, pressed on with the other aspects of his programme. A prominent aspect of the programme was to secure for French energy companies – Gaz de France, Suez and Total and Sonatrach – the right to locate and extract Algeria’s oil and gas. The very high prices of oil and gas, which are not expected to come down for some time, and the international competition for known energy resources worldwide are the driving force behind Sarkozy’s effort to secure sole access to Algeria’s reserves.

But the French president’s concerns during his trip to Algeria and Tunisia were not limited to energy issues, as the summit in Algiers demonstrated. The other issues he discussed with Bouteflika included concerted efforts against terrorism and measures designed to stop the flow of African immigrants into Europe through the Mediterranean Sea – issues that were also discussed with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president. However, the main proposal Sarkozy took with him to Algeria and Tunisia was the establishment of a Mediterranean Union consisting of North African countries and European states such as France, Spain and Portugal. The establishment of such a union will help to secure the implementation of the French president’s other objectives, such as the obliteration of Islamic groups and resistance, unfettered access to energy resources, an end to immigration into Europe, and French hegemony over former colonies.

The French president’s resolve to reimpose control over his country’s former colonies is not confined to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, but extends to Chad, the Central African Republic andIvory Coast. In fact, that resolve even extends to countries outside Africa, such as Lebanon. Initially, Sarkozy declared Hizbullah a terrorist organisation, but later he changed his mind when he realised that there could be no political settlement in the Lebanese conflict without Hizbullah’s participation in a peace deal. In fact, the French foreign minister, who visited Lebanon on July 27, was reported to be prepared to “meet Hizbullah politicians” during his negotiations with the parties to the dispute.

If only the dictators ruling the former French colonies, like Algeria’s Bouteflika and Ben Ali of Tunisia, were as principled and resolved as the leaders of Hizbullah, the North African Muslim countries might not be in the mess they are in now. But, alas, they are not and Sarkozy, who knows this, can dictate terms to them. But he is under-estimating the Islamic movements in the North African region, which are bound to receive greater public support as a result of his arrogance and the local rulers’ capitulation to his agenda.

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