Opposition parties urged boycott to protest against President Wade’s “monarchy”.
The fear is the best may leave behind a generation trapped in a land with little opportunity
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is visiting Senegal on the second leg of his African tour after leaving Libya.
Sarkozy’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president will seek to strengthen economic ties between the two countries and outline France’s new policy in Africa.
But many in western Africa will be more interested in his immigration policy.
As interior minister, Sarkozy became something of a controversial figure with his policy of “selective immigration” to France that authorised the repatriation of illegal immigrants on charter flights.
Sarkozy has said as president he will continue with the policy which establishes a quota system for immigrants that will favour professionals such as doctors and computer experts.
When the policy was put before the French parliament last year, Abdoulaye Wade, the Senegalese president, said it allowed France to cherry-pick who gets in and would precipitate a brain drain from some African countries.
Examples of the effects of French immigration policy and the poverty people are trying to escape can be found in the slums of Dakar, Senegal’s capital.
Young men can often be found sitting around, chatting over coffee as there’s little work for them here. When they talk of their dreams, travelling to Europe and France in particular feature often.
One man, Kamara, who asked not be called by his real name, pursued that dream.
He went to France on a month-long visa and stayed for a year, until he was caught by the authorities and deported.
“It was really difficult, it was like the sky had fallen down on me,” he says. “Because you’re working normally, you’re sending money home, you are saving a little.”
“One day you go down to buy something in a shop and then you’re arrested by the police. And then after the police it’s back to Senegal. It’s like a descent into hell.”
But Kamara has not given up. He asked to have his identity remain secret because he is planning to apply for another short term visa at the French embassy. But this time it may be more difficult.
Many young men in Senegal have no qualifications and few skills, consequently Sarkozy’s policy means there is little chance of them getting into France legally.
Opportunity for all?
But the government insists that everyone will still have an opportunity to migrate.
“I’m convinced that with the signature of this agreement with France, not only students will have visas to go to France with the agreement of the French authorities to do internships, but also there will be visas for workers,” Ousmane Ngom, the interior minister told Al Jazeera.
Some professionals on the other hand, who would have no difficulty getting into France, are worried Sarkozy’s policy could start a brain drain that would damage Africa’s future.
Dialo Diop, a doctor at the Chu Fann hospital says “The principle is bad and irrelevant because Sarkozy wants to take advantage of people he didn’t train.”
“Those people have been trained in Africa on African resources and Africa badly needs these skills to try and reconstruct this continent.”
The fear in Dakar therefore is that Senegal could be a loser on two fronts – its best minds may go to Europe, leaving behind a generation of young men trapped in a land with little opportunity.
As agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the economy, urban unemployment is high and over half of Senegal’s 11.6 million people live in poverty.