France's Role in Gabon's Politics Unchanged



The clashes that erupted following Gabon's disputed presidential elections reflect not only anger at the results of the August vote - which proclaimed Ali Bongo the winner - but also at former colonial ruler France. Paris has denied any involvement in the vote, but the unrest raises new questions at what has changed - and what has stayed the same - when it comes to France's relations with its onetime African colonies.

They call it France-Afrique. France's historically close - critics argue suffocatingly close - relations with its former African colonies, and sometimes with African strongmen and undemocratic regimes. Few ties have been closer than those beween France and Gabon, particularly under long-time Gabonese leader Omar Bongo.

Mr. Bongo died in June. And last week,  Gabonese authorities announced his son - former defense minister Ali Bongo - had won August presidential elections to succeed him.

The announcement drew violent protests. Opposition supporters looted stores and clashed with security forces. They claimed the elections were riddled with fraud. But their ire was also directed at France, for allegedly having supported the younger Bongo.

Protesters set fire to the French consulate and attacked the compound of the French oil company Total. They were angry that France had done nothing to prevent Ali Bongo from allegedly using his influence and wealth to win the presidential vote.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner condemned the violence, and said the French government was ready to help French nationals - including repatriate them - if needed.

Earlier this week, the French government announced President Nicolas Sarkozy had sent a letter of congratulations to Ali Bongo for his victory. But French authorities deny playing any role in the outcome.

Analyst Alain Antil, head of the Africa Program at the French Institute of International Affairs in Paris, agrees France played no part in the vote.

But Antil says that doesn't mean France has played a neutral role when it comes to Gabon, or that its historically close ties with the older Bongo won't continue under his son.

President Sarkozy came to power in 2007 vowing a 'rupture' in traditional French-Africa ties. He said France would support democratically elected governments. But, Antil says, Gabon raises questions on whether the old 'France-Afrique' has vanished forever.

Earlier this week, a close confidante of Mr. Sarkozy, Robert Bourgi   told French radio that the elder Bongo and other African leaders pressured the president to remove a top French official that they dislike from his role in dealing with developing nations.

Bourgi told French radio that Mr. Sarkozy had responded by saying the official in question would be leaving his post shortly. It's unclear whether Bourgi's description of the events are true. But the official did leave his post.

Relations between Gabon and France may be strained by another matter - an ongoing corruption investigation targeting three African leaders, including former president Bongo.  Following Mr. Bongo's death, the plaintiffs in the case, including corruption watchdog Transparency International, said they would pursue the case against Mr. Bongo's relatives.

Meanwhile, analyst Antil says ties between France and other parts of Francophone Africa are changing.

Antil says that when it comes to Benin, Mali, Madagascar and Ivory Coast, ties have developed in a healthier way. But problems remain, he says - and France's relations with Gabon are among them.

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