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Africa's Gendarme Walks Off the Beat As Paris Cuts Back

As President Jacques Chirac headed off on a state visit July 17-18 to former African colonies Gabon and the Congo, French officials were announcing the most dramatic downsizing of France's military in the postwar period.

Both militarily and in its other relations with Africa, France is scaling down its commitments to its former colonies.

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In Paris this week, Mr. Chirac urged South African leader Nelson Mandela to take a greater role in peacekeeping and other security operations on the continent, a role Mr. Mandela has been reluctant to accept.

In Gabon and the Congo the French president will urge African states to adopt the institutional reforms needed to attract more private investment.

The dream of a "greater France," with 100 million inhabitants, inspired France's colonial presence in Africa, and underlay its efforts after decolonization to maintain a Francophone community in Africa based on a common language and currency and France's military might.

France has been the chief foreign presence in sub-Saharan Africa since most countries there became independent in the 1960s.

It is still the region's No. 1 aid donor and trading partner, as well as its self-proclaimed spokesman with international lenders and donors. But the costs of financing the French connection in Africa are proving difficult to sustain.

For the first time, France is actively seeking partners to share the economic and military costs it shoulders in one of the world's poorest regions.

One goal of the French move to professionalize and shrink its Army is to create a flexible, lower-cost force to quickly intervene in regional conflicts. A key venue for such operations will be Africa, where France has intervened 35 times in the last 34 years.

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France maintains a military presence in eight African nations and has military cooperation agreements with 15 others. In 1994, France deployed troops under a United Nations mandate in Rwanda to help refugees fleeing a genocide.

In May, France intervened in Central African Republic to put down a mutiny by underpaid troops. With 1,400 French troops on the ground, France evacuated 1,500 foreigners, imposed order, and negotiated peace.

But with double-digit unemployment and sharp budget cuts pending, France can no longer afford to be the policeman of Africa.

In addition, the intervention was not popular in Central African Republic, where some 10,000 anti-French protesters burned the French cultural center in Bangui, the capital, and marched on the French Embassy, calling "Death to the French!"

French officials counter that African security depends on greater economic stability and that France's military presence encourages foreign investment.

"France's military presence is very important to Japanese investors," says a Japanese diplomat in Paris. "During the problems in Central African Republic, we could count on France to evacuate our businessmen."

France is the world's No. 2 aid donor, just behind Japan. More than 70 percent of French development assistance goes to Africa. At the G-7 summit of leaders of the top industrial nations in Lyon last month, Chirac called for a new partnership for development to help the world's poorest nations, adding that 33 out of 45 such nations are in Africa.

Before the summit, French officials worked out a common position with Japan on debt relief for Africa. "France has usually been the lone voice for African aid at these summits - now there are two," says a French diplomat.

But French officials say that cuts in their own credits to Africa and support for investment there are inevitable. France has already severely cut back government guarantees for foreign investors in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

"Our policy is becoming more and more restrictive," says Roger Meflah, director of the African division of Coface, a government-backed French company that insures exporters. In the last 12 years, Coface has covered some $5 billion in bad debts in sub-Saharan Africa, including $1.7 billion in Nigeria, $490 million in Gabon, and $390 million in the Congo.

Critics at home, including government budget-cutters, some conservative politicians, and magistrates crusading against corruption, are demanding a closer look at the costs to France of the Africa connection.

"We have given a lot of aid, but we have given it unwisely," says centrist legislator Yves Marchand, who recently published a widely read report on France's policy in Africa. "We need to make our aid conditional on institutional reforms that will reassure investors. Investors need to know that if they invest money, they will get it back."

A key objective of future aid should be to clean up legal systems, the police, and taxation, he adds. "Bankers and small and medium-sized French exporters say that 30 to 40 percent of their work day is spent resisting pressures or demands for bribes from the administration, the police, or the army."

According to press reports, African officials and business contacts have also been a key source of illegal campaign funds for French political parties, an issue that French magistrates are just beginning to investigate.

On July 4, the head of the French national railroads, Lok Le Floch-Prigent, was arrested on suspicion of illegally investing funds while president of Elf-Aquitaine, France's largest oil company, which has strong interests in Africa.

Andrew Tarallo, the head of Elf-Gabon and Elf-Congo, is under investigation for allegedly approving the illegal payments.

"Many people here were astonished at these investigations," said Pierre Devoluy, director of Gabon-based "Africa No. 1," a leading Francophone radio station. "These men didn't build villas or chateaus or huge Swiss bank accounts."

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