Monday, 14 May 2007

We don't do apologies

Luxembourg Gardens
Paris,
France

Dear Confidentialers,

After sending another Africa Confidential to the printers in the smallish hours of Thursday morning, I jumped on a Eurostar on a mission to see President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy spend an uncomfortable half hour with outgoing President Jacques Chirac at the delightful Jardin du Luxembourg in the heart of the Latin quarter in Paris. The occasion was the unveiling of a statue of a broken chain to mark the abolition of slavery by France in 1848.

That was the Year of European Revolution. Somehow those phlegmatic Anglo-Saxons across the Channel had managed to pass a law barring the participation of Brits in the slave trade 41 years earlier ­ without taking to the streets in the continental way. Several Brits, however, colluded with the likes of Yoruba plutocrat Madame Tinubu to continue their slave-raiding and transporting operations, moving down the coast from Lagos to Ouidah, the capital of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, until Brazil finally abolished it in 1851. It took the United States a little longer and a civil war to follow suit.

The French law went further than than William Wilberforce's law, which was finally passed in Westminster in February 1807, and declared slavery a crime against humanity. Accordingly, last Thursday's event prompted some Gallic breast-beating about the atrocities of the vile trade, well, mainly by the outgoing President, whose emotional outpourings on Africa are unlikely to be imitated by his successor.

Nicolas Sarkozy, ­ like his Anglo-Saxon pal Tony Blair, ­ doesn't do apologies for the slave trade, nor for colonialism, nor indeed for much else. That morning's newspapers in Paris were excoriating Sarkozy and his wife Cécilia for luxuriating on a yacht belonging to corporate raider Vincent Bolloré. Sarko's response was that there was nothing for which to apologise.

He was a shade more diplomatic in the Jardin du Luxembourg at the statue, chatting for a few minutes with his arch-critic, Guadeloupe-born French football international Lilian Thuram. Afterwards, Thuram, who accused Sarkozy of insulting people caught up in the 2005 riots, said social issues were too important to be personalised. Initially, it seems, Sarko is on a charm offensive and he will be advised on African matters by people like his spokeswoman Rachida Data, whose parents come from the Maghreb, and immigration specialist Rama Yade, from Senegal.

Sarko's dear mère, Andrée, is doing better in the French press than his wife Cécilia, who distinguished herself by saying that she was proud that not a drop of French blood flowed through her veins. By contrast, Andrée tried to quell the fears of those who think her son might occasionally spin out of control. 'He was a little excitable when he was a small boy,' she told journalists, 'but these days he's very calm.' Tell that to the metaphorical marines in the Paris suburbs, Maman Andrée.

Sarko's week ended with the arrival in Paris of a freshly resigned Tony Blair, who had earlier feted his friend's election win with a congratulatory broadcast on Youtube in excellent tele-prompt French: Sarkozy would be 'strong leader', able to build a 'good and close relationship' with Britain. That makes the French a little suspicious, particularly when followed by equally fulsome plaudits from US President George Bush.

Much is likely to change in France. Sarkozy said he will try negotiations first; if that doesn't work, it will be the strong arm of the state. His relentless focus on restructuring France's domestic economy and social services has big implications. Immediately, Sarkozy has to raise 30 billion euro: that's to pay for his proposed tax cuts and for the restructuring of France's lavish public services. Africans believe somehow they will foot the bill. Sarkozy has already said that the French economy does not need Africa. Is he about to prove it?

Poor handling of the Paris-Africa axis, pretty wobbly in recent years, could destroy it altogether. Tight on funds, the French Ministry of Cooperation may spend less on development aid. Certainly Sarkozy has pledged to end Françafrique, the self-interested network of Franco-African political and business friendships.

More interesting and maybe more important is Sarkozy's proposal for a Mediterranean Union, bringing all the North African countries and Turkey together with the Southern European states of which France is the biggest economic force. The proposed Med Union will have its own institutions and may have common commissions with the European Union. With all that North African oil and gas sloshing around, it's a clever commercial idea even if the politics may be problematic ­ Sarkozy sitting down with Brother leader Moammar el Gadaffi of Libya, perhaps.

As Sarkozy comes steaming or sailing into power, his pal Blair leaves port in a tightly choreographed adieu ­ well at least until the next time. For Africa, the next time is likely to be pretty soon because, along with climate change and the environment, one of the main focuses of the new Blair Foundation will be African development. Indeed, it's a pity that Blair has booked a trip to Washington to bid farewell to President Bush; he might have learned more if he'd flown east to Shanghai for the African Development Bank Annual Meeting. That's where I'll be reporting from this week on Africa's fast-growing relations with Asia and their economic and political implications.

Before then, don't forget to check our latest edition featuring articles and analyses on: how President-elect Umaru Yar'Adua's transition is working in Nigeria; South Africa's Democratic Alliance party and its new leader; the diplomatic pressure ramping up on Sudan's government over the Darfur holocaust; Mauritania's new President and the challenges ahead; Zambia's ex-President Frederick Chiluba's state-funded haute couture; vulture funds; and an exclusive report on the state of Africa's political parties and parliaments.

Until next time in Shanghai,

Yours confidentially

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