The real scandal in France

French President Francois Hollande’s policies fall short of his political promises.

Francois Hollande's promise to leave behind Francafrique in French foreign policy has not been realised [Reuters]

Thanks to the commercial press, we know a great deal about Francois Hollande’s private life. We have been told so much that it is easy to forget that the military expeditions the president is overseeing are worthy of more scrutiny than his escapades by scooter.

During a visit to Senegal in 2012, Hollande hailed the end of Francafrique [Fr] – a term that has become synonymous with neo-colonialism. Relations between France and Africa were now based on mutual respect, he assured his hosts in Dakar.

Hollande has displayed a curious form of respect. Around half of all French troops stationed overseas are located in Africa. As well as keeping five “permanent” bases [Fr] on the continent, France has undertaken major operations in Mali and the Central African Republic over the past year.

The official line is that France is helping to bring peace and stability to regions where they are lacking. That explanation falls apart once you put French policies under the microscope.

The official line is that France is helping to bring peace and stability to regions where they are lacking. That explanation falls apart once you put French policies under the microscope.

France is second only to Britain as the largest military power in the European Union. The latest “white paper” on “defence” published by the Paris government signals an intention to retain that status. It commits France to a $131bn splurge on the military between now and 2019.

Francafrique resurrected

Serval, as the operation in Mali is known, has provided a showcase for the weapons industry.

One little-known aspect of the offensive is that it made heavy use of Harfang drones. Developed by the Franco-German arms manufacturer EADS and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Harfang is modelled on IAI’s Heron, a warplane that has brought death and horrific injuries to numerous families in Gaza.

What is France risking in Mali?

The French establishment is keen to put more Israeli armaments in the country’s arsenal. A recent study [Fr] by the Foundation for Strategic Research, a “think-tank” funded [Fr] by French corporations, argued that Israeli drones should be a “source of inspiration” for France. The foundation claimed that most “types of engagement” which France faces bear many similarities to operations conducted by Israel. A large deployment of armed drones would be justified for both “counter-insurgency” and “peace-keeping” activities, according to the study.

It is logical that the Paris elite feels a sense of affinity with Israel. It should be recalled that – in June 1917 – France became the first major European nation to declare its support [Fr] for the Zionist plan to conquer Palestine. While the state of Israel behaves as if it has a divine right to plunder the West Bank’s resources, France is behaving with the same type of arrogance in Africa.

Hubert Vedrine, the former foreign minister, has been tasked by the current government with advising on how French firms can be more than dominant in Africa than they already are. After bemoaning how France has lost ground to China, his blueprint [Fr] recommends full support for a bellicose EU agenda.

The objective of this agenda – to clinch innocuous sounding economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with a range of African countries – was set more than a decade ago. Despite how Brussels officials have tried to promote their drive as the “most generous” commercial relationship ever envisaged, their real intention was to allow for-profit corporations to gain control of a continent’s destiny.

When he was the EU’s trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson insisted that the “agreements” ban many African countries from taxing exports of raw materials. Rather than being able to take such steps to promote the processing of raw material at home, Africa was told that foreign entrepreneurs must have unrestricted access to its natural riches.

Both political leaders and ordinary people in Africa have resisted the resource grab. Many have rejected the EU’s proposals. Yet the European Commission remains committed to attaining its goals – with the blessing, it would appear, of France.

It is not hard to understand why. The French corporation Areva is actively mining Niger’s uranium deposits. France’s military endeavours in West Africa are almost certainly connected to its desire to secure a ready supply of fuel for the nuclear industry. In-house researchers at the ministry of defence in Paris noted in February last year that 60 percent of the world’s uranium reserves can be found in Mali and Niger. The researchers contended that any “instability” in these countries would have knock-on effects for “economic projects in the entire region”.

The French African Connection

Vedrine’s aforementioned paper boasts that Total, the oil giant, is “one of the leaders in exploration and exploitation” in Africa. He does not spell out that these activities can have ruinous implications for the environment. Total has been allocated permits for exploration in Virunga, Africa’s biggest national park. Home to half of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, it is located in Congo, a country where the quest for natural resources is intimately linked to war.

Africans derive scant benefits from Total’s pursuits. Later this year Total is scheduled to decide if it will go ahead with a major project off Angola. Although oil is Angola’s top export, native Angolans comprise just 1 percent of all employees in the country’s oil industry.

Hollande’s ‘true adversary’

It should be added that Total’s profits don’t tend to trickle down to the denizens of Lyon or Lille. In 2010, Total was exempt from tax[Fr] in France, despite raking in profits of 10.3 billion euro ($14 bn). Since 1966, it had been availing of [Fr] a fiscal regime tailored to delight a handful of huge corporations (the regime was eventually scrapped [Fr] in 2011).

Hollande’s domestic policies are equally deplorable. His “responsibility pact” with business is being presented as a prudent set of economic reforms. In reality, it amounts to an attack on a welfare state largely financed by the taxes that Hollande has pledged to cut, at the behest of employers.

MEDEF, the federation of French industrialists, has demanded that Hollande go even further. It wants a three-year freeze [Fr] on public expenditure. With 3.3 million people out of work in mainland France, this can only be a recipe for widening inequality.

Nicolas Sarkozy became known as “president of the rich” after he celebrated[Fr] his 2007 election victory with top entrepreneurs. Before winning the 2012 poll, Hollande named the masters of financial markets as his “true adversary“. It was a slip of the tongue. Hollande was quick to emphasise that he was not left-wing.

In some respects, French politics is aping that of the United States. George W Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy rankled progressives (like me) by being overtly reactionary on subjects like gay marriage. Barack Obama and Francois Hollande appear more reasonable and enlightened.

The differences narrow when it comes to the more fundamental issues of the gaps between the rich and poor, the strong and the weak. Like Obama, Hollande has no qualms about using violence to maintain control over other country’s resources. Like Obama, Hollande seems determined to make greater use of drones. Like Obama, Hollande is subservient to big business.

By being unfaithful to his partner, Hollande has only hurt those closest to him. The rest of us should be more concerned about a wider breach of trust. All of those who voted for him in the hope he would usher in some meaningful change have been betrayed. That is the real scandal.

David Cronin is the author of Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War. His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation.