Europe's Post-Colonial Politics

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In 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his intention to found a new history museum in Paris. In recent weeks, he may have been cursing the memories of two of France's lesser-known historical figures, Louis Edouard Bouët-Willaumez and Jules Ferry. Both men died over a century ago, but they are still causing Sarkozy trouble.

Bouët-Willaumez was a French naval hero who began the colonisation of what is now Côte d'Ivoire in the 1840s. Ferry was the prime minister who authorised an invasion of Tunisia in 1881. Although France renounced control over Tunisia in 1957 and Côte d'Ivoire in 1960, officials in Paris have always viewed them as important elements of the French sphere of influence in Africa. Now that sphere of influence seems to be falling apart - a strategic challenge for France that has been overshadowed by events in Egypt.

Back in December, post-electoral violence in Côte d'Ivoire presented President Sarkozy with a quandary. Should he direct the 900 French troops still based in the country to back UN peacekeepers protecting the internationally-recognised election winner Alassane Ouattara? Calculating that this might spark violence against French expatriates, Sarkozy said no. Mr. Ouattara and his cabinet continue to be guarded by Bangladeshi troops.

January's protests in Tunisia confronted France with an even more acute crisis. As violence mounted, French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie suggested that French could send security personnel to help stop the trouble. Then Tunisia's autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled - and Sarkozy rapidly refused him asylum.

"France was not only a step behind events," as the Economist chortled last month, "but, unlike America, failed to condemn the regime's violent response to protesters." Now there are more protests in Algeria - how will Paris respond if the crisis there escalates?

Some European leaders have been waiting to see France embarrassed like this for some time. Having embraced the concept of a European Union defence identity, Paris annoyed other EU members by pushing them into interventions in Francophone African countries like the Congo (admittedly former Belgian property) and Chad. Certain governments, such as Germany, have indicated they want no part in future EU games in Africa.

The irony is that, although Nicolas Sarkozy approved the EU's 2008-2009 mission to Chad, he has no real interest in these African adventures. He undermined proposals that the EU should send troops to help contain a massive crisis in the Congo in late 2008.

Sarkozy is arguably France's first truly post-colonialist leader. His predecessor Jacques Chirac had a genuine love for African culture - he was the driving force behind the Musée du Quai Branly, which houses African and other non-European art. He also had a realpolitik approach to African conflicts, using force in Côte d'Ivoire in a 2004 crisis.

Nicolas Sarkozy not only avoided fighting in Côte d'Ivoire and Tunisia but declared that his new history museum should be about "national identity" rather than far-off ex-colonies. But if he is a post-colonialist leader, he is not the only one. There are obvious differences between Tony Blair - who sent UK forces to Sierra Leone and reportedly considered deploying troops to Darfur - and the far less interventionist David Cameron.

During a heated semi-public debate over the future of Britain's armed forces last year, the hawkish defense minister Liam Fox warned Cameron that proposed cuts would mean that the UK could not even mount an operation comparable to Blair's in Sierra Leone.

While Fox blocked the worst of the proposed military cuts, very few British defense analysts believe that the Conservative government - or any Labour alternative - would want to get involved in future African crises. Similarly, French officials will probably not be able to influence recalcitrant African leaders with talk of major interventions.

Europe still has ways to affect African affairs. France has commandos operating against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Britain's Department for International Development has emphasised support to conflict prevention in weak states, a cause championed by its thoughtful Tory chief Andrew Mitchell. The EU has imposed heavy sanctions on Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president who has refused to cede power to Ouattara.

But if European leaders think that they can manage African crises through commando operations and economic tools, they will be disappointed. Even development aid is a declining asset. China and India are investing more and more in Africa, reshaping the continent's economy and sidelining aid projects. If European countries want to play a positive role in Africa, they should prioritise support for the values which have been tested in Côte d'Ivoire, Tunisia and Egypt: democracy, human rights and free expression.

Democratic political processes and civil society movements are far better mechanisms for averting future crises than European military deployments or sanctions. The EU should invest more funds in support of human rights activists, trades unions and the free press across Africa as the center-piece of a truly post-colonial policy towards the region.

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