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Monday, March 23, 1998 Published at 19:31 GMT

France no longer battling US over Africa

In embarking on a high-profile tour of Africa, President Clinton is asserting the United States' interest in a part of the world which France has long viewed as its own sphere of influence.

Officials in Paris are usually quick to describe any American initiative in Africa as an attempt to throw the French out, but Mr Clinton's trip has not drawn such criticism from France.

BBC Analyst Henri Astier asks if the Franco-American rivalry in Africa is over.

Most cities in French-speaking Africa have an unmistakably Gallic air about them: the tree-lined boulevards, the outdoor cafes, the ubiquitous baguettes are signs that links with the former colonial power remain strong.

Until recently, governments in Paris behaved as if independence had never happened. French money kept mismanaged economies afloat, and bought allegiance from friendly governments.

And just as resisting the "Anglo-Saxons" (i.e the Americans) is a perennial concern of French officialdom, curbing US influence has traditionnally been a cornerstone of France's African policy.

In recent years old Africa hands in Paris were appalled when Ugandan-backed guerrillas overthrew French proteges in Rwanda and Zaire: many felt that Washington - through President Museveni of Uganda - was casting its net across mineral-rich central Africa.

So why, given this age-old sense of rivalry, do the French view Mr Clinton's African tour with relative equanimity?

France lets go

One reason is that the new Socialist government is Paris wants to present a more modern image by insisting it doesn't believe in spheres of influence.

"French predominance over Africa is no more credible than America predominance over Latin America," the French defence minister, Alain Richard, recently said.

But this new attitude has deeper roots than a change of government. Since the early 1990s - under both conservative and left-wing governments - France has slowly normalised relations with its former colonies.

In 1990 President Mitterrand bluntly told African leaders to allow free elections.

Then Paris realised it could no longer afford to support corrupt clients and a bloated Franco-African currency: aid recipients were made to embrace IMF-inspired economic reforms.

The result - a West Africa less dependent on its former colonial masters - has pleased the Americans.

US, France and Africans work together

Furthermore, in the past year France and the US have begun to work actively together in Africa.

When in the past trouble was threatening to destabilise a corner of its African backyard, France would send paratroopers to sort things out.

But now, following a controversial foray into Rwanda, the French feel that peacekeeping on the continent is best left to the Africans themselves.

The Americans, who have had their own disaster in Somalia, agree.

Both Paris and Washington are now providing training and logistical support for a fledging African intervention force.

This does not mean that the scramble for influence in Africa is over. As development takes hold on the continent, there are bound to be rivalries over markets and contracts.

And there will always be pride-induced spats - as in 1996 when an African trip by the then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher was greeted with scorn in Paris.

But at least for now, mutual distrust is in check: few French nerves will be jangled by President Clinton's tour.

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