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Michel Rocard
Michel Rocard
Michel Rocard is a former prime minister of France and a former leader of the Socialist Party.
The return of the French?
As France increases its activity on the international stage, whispers of its colonial past echo across Africa.
Last Modified: 28 Apr 2011 13:46
Due to their colonial past, the French still feel they have a "duty of friendship" to their former colonies [GALLO/GETTY]

How difficult is it to erase one's past as a colonial power?

Tunisia has been independent for 55 years, and the Ivory Coast for 51 years, yet France is once more playing a decisive role in these countries.

Naturally, many Africans are unconvinced that France is acting only to defend the lives of a few thousand of its citizens, rather than its economic and strategic interests, which are negligible for the former and null for the latter.

The damage that slavery and colonialism inflicted in these countries has left a powerful legacy. And, though they have been handling their own business for decades, France still has a duty of friendship that forbids it to forget and requires it to adopt a certain mode of conduct.

The Ivory Coast enjoys large agricultural wealth (along with gold, diamonds, and iron); Tunisia possesses large phosphate deposits; Libya has oil; and all three have a relatively moderate climate. But none experienced economic takeoff at independence. Why?

The French historian and sociologist Emmanuel Todd has argued that, everywhere in the world, economic takeoff usually occurs 60-70 years after 50 per cent of the population achieves literacy.

Moreover, the higher the average age of marriage for women, the faster literacy spreads. The more time a woman has had to live alone and acquire knowledge, the stronger her desire and capacity to pass it on to her children.

Northern Germany and southern Scandinavia were the first regions to experience mass literacy, which was followed by faster economic development a few decades later.

These are places where women's average age at marriage has been around 23 for some time. In the Arab world and most of Africa, women marry, on average, at around 15.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are three clear cases of massive popular anger against economic underdevelopment and the dictatorships that were justifiably blamed for it.

The major difference between the three is that in Tunisia and Egypt, economic development had gone far enough to give rise to a small trading and salaried middle class, which initiated the rebellions and whose members were sufficient in number to succeed – at least in deposing the dictators.

Libya is entirely different. The anger there, fuelled by misery and insufficient food, is popular, not bourgeois.

The forces of resistance are too limited, while the military – a key tool of social advancement for the poor – remains in the hands of the dictatorship. The rebellion could not succeed by itself; from the start, terrible and bloody repression was to be expected.

The Ivory Coast looks nothing like North Africa: its troubles are purely local, ethnic, and religious.

The Republic's first president, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, was elected at independence in 1960 and remained in office until he died in 1993 – always careful to construct governments with representatives from all the tribes, and with a balance between southern Catholics and northern Muslims.

Houphouet-Boigny's successor, Henri Konan Bédié, had neither his talent nor his courage. Bédié founded his power on the country's Catholics and his government on tribal membership.

And he invented a legitimising concept of Ivorian identity (Ivoirité), which was largely meant to disqualify northern Muslims as foreigners, because their tribes extended into Mali and Burkina Faso.

This policy ignited a latent conflict, with a military coup in 1999 putting General Robert Gueï in power. But Gueï lasted only three years, with his assassination in 2002 setting the country's conflicting sides on a path to civil war.

In this tense climate, the northern candidate, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim and former senior official at the International Monetary Fund, was denied the right to run in the 2005 presidential election.

The winner, the southerner Laurent Gbagbo, then refused to concede his defeat by Ouattara in 2010, leading to violent conflict and fear of a long and potentially genocidal civil war.

In both Libya and the Ivory Coast, massacres of civilians were foreseeable.

In both cases, the question in Paris and other capitals was whether to intervene. And in both cases, France had an obvious interest in not intervening, in order to erase its colonial past (more so in the Ivory Coast than in Libya, where Italy had been the European coloniser).

But tens of thousands of French citizens live in the Ivory Coast. France had to protect them.

In Libya, Col. Muammar Gaddafi's wanton violence brought the situation firmly under the purview of the United Nations Security Council and the UN's recently proclaimed "responsibility to protect" civilians threatened by their own governments.

Libyan civilians are now under the protection of international law. Only an international decision could have accomplished this. Indeed, Lebanon's vote for military intervention in Libya not only enhances its legitimacy, but also raises the suspicion that even Iran condemns Gaddafi's brutality.

Once the decision to intervene was taken, France, with the largest armed forces in the Mediterranean, alas became the most visible of the intervening countries – with few others capable of joining it, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Unfortunately, international solidarity for the armed protection of endangered populations does not yet really exist.

The danger is that in much of Africa, former imperialists are suspected of being imperialists still, which could make the development of international law appear to be a mere power play.

This is even clearer in the Ivory Coast: it is the UN that explicitly demanded that France, the only foreign presence, implement the resolution that ratified Ouattara as the elected president and Gbagbo as the usurper.

France did the job rather well, leaving, for example, the arrest of Gbagbo to Ouattara's forces. Civil war was averted.

It is, in fact, pure stupidity to believe that France is trying to restore its defunct empire. Defunct imperialisms no longer make sense.

Today's real problems are vastly different from when colonial empires held sway, and they need to be dealt with in a non-imperialist fashion.

So what is really needed nowadays is for the world public to become convinced of the need for an effective international watchdog for peace and human rights.

Michel Rocard is a former prime minister of France and a former leader of the Socialist party.

The article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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