French Grip in Africa Sphere Slips : New Generation Looks to Rest of Europe and to U.S.

Associated Press

Even in Gabon, where the French-owned supermarket stocks 15 brands of camembert cheese, France's grip on its former African colonies is slipping 25 years after independence.

In Ivory Coast, the glimmering showcase of France's post-colonial success in Africa, 15,000 Frenchmen have gone home in the last few years. They ranged from top government officials to salesclerks.

Few political analysts or economists predict an eclipse of France in Africa. The shift is subtle and slow-moving, more commercial than political.

For all the departures, 35,000 Frenchmen remain in Ivory Coast, twice as many as at independence, and 3,000 are on the Ivorian government payroll. "Technical counselors" advise governments across French-speaking Africa.

France dominates trade, investment, aid and political contacts in its 14 former colonies. The Bank of France guarantees a common French African currency, and French bankers handle 80% of all transactions.

Youth Looks Past Paris

Six French military bases total 8,000 men, and 1,000 French advisers train local cadres. Nearly every senior French-African officer has received some training in France.

Guinea, which rejected association with France in 1958, is now turning back to Paris after decades of socialism left it in ruin.

But a new generation of Africans is looking away from Paris toward the rest of Europe and America. In hotel lobbies, USA Today lies next to Le Monde, the French newspaper. Playgirl is displayed along with Paris Match.

French officials reveal some nervousness over la percee Americaine-- the American penetration--despite assurances that U.S. policy supports France's role in its former colonies.

After France withdrew its forces from Chad, leaving Libyans in the north of its former colony, some African leaders made friendly gestures to the United States.

President Omar Bongo of Gabon, a small Central African enclave of 750,000 Gabonese and 26,000 Frenchmen, made it clear in public and private statements that he wanted more American attention.

Few Americans So Far

So far, few American officials or businessmen have overcome a traditional wariness of exploring French Africa.

Nonetheless, commercial competition is building, particularly in larger African states which are finding that American, Japanese and European companies often provide better servicing or other advantages.

Japan controls up to 70% of the automobile market, although most sales are through French companies. Lebanese traders are moving heavily into retail sales, imports and small industry.

African officials are seeking to temper entrenched private French interests which, supported by Paris, work together to form a barrier against newcomers.

"We are prepared to offer Americans, or others, exactly what we offer the French," said Jean Ping, chief aide to Bongo. "We feel it is important to diversify our interests."

Two American companies, Amoco and Tenneco, struck offshore oil in waters the French-controlled company, Elf-Gabon, had abandoned.

In Togo, officials were miffed when a French consulting firm recommended that they scrap an idle $44-million steel plant. Instead, American investor John Moore of New York began producing steel there at a profit.

Even in politics, Togo, like other states, is seeking to broaden its horizons.

On the recent 100th anniversary of German colonization, a decree noted, "Germany was the first European country with which the Togolese decided to establish friendship." France took over in 1917.

Inroads in Education

The decree established a permanent dean of the diplomatic corps: the West German and the French ambassadors would alternate--starting with the German.

Ivory Coast opened diplomatic relations with a number of states, including Albania.

Among the most significant inroads are those in higher education.

In the late 1970s, Ivory Coast decided to ignore private French contentions that American universities turned out "robots" too specialized in their fields for developing countries.

Since then, two-thirds of all Ivorian doctorates earned abroad in technical fields and science have been in the United States and Canada.

"I always push my best people to go to the United States," said Achi Atsain, director of Ivory Coast's Center for Social and Economic Research. "French education is too theoretical. We have to retrain people when they come back. Obviously, this will have a long-term effect on the Ivory Coast."

Two Senegalese Cabinet ministers hold degrees in business administration from American universities.

Foreign businessmen say this diversity is already evident in specifications and structures of government bids which in the past automatically favored French companies.

France Pushing Hard

But France is pushing hard to maintain its position. Its African sphere not only enhances its prestige but also provides strategic minerals, traditional markets and outposts for national defense.

In a radio interview in Libreville, Pierre Dabezies, the French ambassador to Gabon, emphasized the cooperation and aid France gave to Africa.

"The difference between France and some other countries is that others have only a mercantile goal," he said. "I won't name names, but their goal is to make money. The rest is fiction."

In Paris, Socialist leaders and the opposition are looking hard at France's aid programs. At a seminar on African policy, veteran inspector-general of finances Andre Postel-Vinay called for reform.

He said France gave Africa 9 billion francs ($1.13 billion at the time) in 1983, but lent 13 billion francs ($1.63 billion) to debt-crippled countries to buy French products.

Different Aid Urged

Africa can repay these export credits only if France gives more aid, Postel-Vinay said, creating a vicious circle that does not help Africans. Instead, he argued, France should give more aid designed to help impoverished people directly.

Some argue that France will retain its dominance indefinitely, regardless of policy. Most former French states are committed to the West, and no Western nation seems prepared to move in.

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