How France Lost Africa to the U.S.

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Niccolo and Donkey
How France Lost Africa to the U.S.

The Atlantic Monthly

G. Pascal Zachary

May 31, 2011

Francophone African nations are shifting their cultural allegiance from their old colonial master to America, a process that will change both Africa and the West


Ivorian refugees carry their possessions on their heads as they walk past a French army checkpoint on October 11, 2002. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

In the scandalous case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French IMF chief currently held in New York facing attempted rape charges, the powerful issues of race and gender easily overwhelm one curious geopolitical detail: what's a woman from a French-speaking, former French colony in West Africa doing in the U.S. in the first place? In this case, she is from Guinea, but she could just as likely be from Senegal, Cameroon, Rwanda, Gabon, or Benin -- all Francophone countries that once sent their most ambitious immigrants almost exclusively to France. Now these and other French-speaking African countries experience a steady outflow people to the U.S.

The presence of a growing number of French-speaking Africans reflects a monumental shift in the relationship of sub-Saharan Africa to France and to the U.S. The shift has been years in the making, and its still-unfolding consequences are dimly appreciated.

I first experienced directly France's loosening hold on its former French colonies on a lengthy visit to Cameroon in 2005. I went to report on the purchase by a U.S. company of the entire electricity system of Cameroon. French-trained technocrats -- all Cameroonian nationals -- were hired to manage the newly privatized system, which was the largest single employer in Cameroon. When I met Jean Bile, the chief executive officer, I found him fluent in English; so was his entire leadership team.

To be sure, Cameroon has an Anglophone zone in its Western region, which borders Nigeria. But the country's educated elite chiefly speak French. During my visit, Bile, who was educated at the Sorbonne, and his colleagues at AES Sonel, explained the various reasons why the best and brightest in Cameroon were turning to English. Partly the reason was pragmatic. For too long, France had exerted enormous economic dominance among its former colonies. Learning English gave the business class new access to the Anglophone capitalist world, and to American capital especially.

The pragmatism and openness of American capital differs sharply from France's more closed, status-oriented managerial culture. About the time that France experienced a wave of protests by African immigrants in 2005, I met with a group of university-educated black Africans living and working in Paris. All of them uniformly complained about racial bias and about limits on the potential of even highly talented to immigrants to advance up French corporate ladders. They showed little gratitude for the government of France having paid for their university educations, a practice meant to bind elites from Africa to French society. The contrast with America's embrace of talented immigrants -- and racial equality -- was impossible to ignore. In a 2009 study of Francophone Africans, Whitney R. Henderson of Providence College found similar reasons for their choice of the U.S. over France.

The drive for economic opportunity explains much of America's attraction of African immigrants, but there's a political element as well, best illustrated by the recent history of Rwanda. A Francophone country, it added English as its third official language after the trauma of the 1994 genocide, signaling a shift in linguistic allegiance. On the surface, the change was an accident of history. Paul Kagame, the leader of the Tutsi rebel forces, had lived for years in English-speaking Uganda. He didn't even speak French. Because he knew English, he chose to receive military training in the U.S., at Fort Benning, Georgia. When he took power, he favored English, setting up a new national media network and criteria for government posts, all in English.

The shift worked, not simply because Kagame imposed his will on Rwanda, but because during the years of persecution, a Tutsi diaspora had flourished in the U.S. These Rwandans spoke fluent English, had acquired skills in America, and understood American business culture. A significant number of these Anglophones returned home, and it was they -- not Kagame -- who engineered the shift to English. When I visited Rwanda, I met the head of the national media company, who had previously worked in Philadelphia. The leading software programmer in the country maintained a house in California. And so on. Charles Haba, another Anglophone, was the country's most intelligent radio host.

Today, the Rwandan government is one of the closest allies the U.S. has in the region,underscoring the distinct shift away from France. In Gallup polls of global attitudes towards American leadership, sub-Saharan Africans express the highest degree of approval, topping 75 percent of those polled in 20 countries. In seven French-speaking countries -- including Burundi, Chad, Senegal Mali and Ivory Coast -- approval ratings exceeded 85%.

France still holds significant influence in Africa, of course, and likely will for some time. The country maintains three military bases on the African continent: in Senegal, Gabon, and Djibouti. Members of the French military are flying over Libya; they also have played a critical role, and for a long time, in Côte d'Ivoire and Chad. And French economic power among its former colonies remains enormous. The common African currency in West Africa, for instance, remains linked to the Euro, at French insistence. The linkage facilitates France's lopsided trade with Africa and, perversely, inflates living costs in Francophone Africa.

The new appreciation that French-speaking Africans display for the U.S. is significant for cultural as well as a geopolitical reasons. Immigrants from Francophone Africa are chiefly Muslim, so they bring a different mental and religious experience to the U.S. than do Anglophone African immigrants (including my own wife, from Port Harcourt, Nigeria) who are mostly Christian.

The style of Islam practiced by African immigrants is far different than the Western stereotype of the militant fundamentalist. Senegalese Muslims, especially followers of the Mouride brotherhood sect, are intensely private about their religious practices and beliefs. Mouride members also invest heavily in their home communities, applying remittances to social services. The scholars Ellen Foley, of Clark University, and Cheikh Anta Babou, of the University of Pennsylvania, recently documented these tendencies in an fascinating article in the journal African Affairs on the creation of a medical hospital in the holy city of Touba in central Senegal.

A more engaged, secularized Islam is apparent among non-Mourides too. In 2009, I celebrated the ending of Ramadan with a Senegalese Muslim in Marin, California. He had only recently brought his wife (not his first, either) from Dakar to the U.S. Before I arrived at his house, he had gently warned me to refrain from even shaking her hand. I expected her to remain silent. Yet over the course of the dinner, she spoke freely in halting English and he showed great pride in her university education and her past work as a teacher in Senegal. She declared she preferred the U.S. to France -- and had consented to marriage to my friend because doing so allowed her to move to America. I recently saw his wife again, and found her speaking English with confidence and helping my friend run his business.

While the personal can be political, the geopolitical is never defined at an individual level. To attempt to chart the shifting terrain of French and U.S. relations with Africa through the lives of immigrants would provide only a very rough guide. As a general matter, in a globalized world, where the number of people living outside their countries of birth is at an historical high, foreign policy will inevitably be influenced by immigrant communities. The uber case of Israel, and the role of Jewish Americans in influencing policy, is undeniable, as is the Cuban-American influence on U.S. policy towards Cuba.

American relations towards African countries, while shaped mostly by concerns over access to oil, the need to combat terrorism, and the importance to American voters of humanitarian concerns, are increasingly influenced by the presence of more than 1 million naturalized Americans born in sub-Saharan Africa. The Strauss-Kahn affair is a reminder that these immigrants are highly diverse. Like the continent of Africa, they speak with many voices and, if only to understand Africa's relations with the wider world, we must listen closely.