The Man Who Ran Franafrique

The Man Who Ran Franafrique

Mini Teaser: On the morning of March 19, 1997, an eighty-three year old Frenchman died in an apartment on the rue de Prony, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, after suffering for several years from Parkinson's disease.

by Author(s): Kaye Whiteman

On the morning of March 19, 1997, an eighty-three year old Frenchman died in an apartment on the rue de Prony, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, after suffering for several years from Parkinson's disease. Such was the legend of Jacques Foccart that, while his period of greatest influence had been thirty years earlier, the death sent tremors through all of French-speaking Africa. Indeed, the tremors were far stronger there than in France itself, even though the only biography of him, L'Homme de l'Ombre (Man of the Shadows) by Pierre PŽan, was subtitled "The most mysterious and most powerful man of the Fifth Republic." For those involved with what has come to be known nowadays as "Franafrique", denoting the special French sphere of influence in Africa, many, along with Albert Bourgi of Jeune Afrique, saw Foccart's death as "the end of an epoch."

It had already become impossible to distinguish between the myths and the realities of the Foccart legend, given the extreme secrecy with which he surrounded his activities. Was he really a great spider manipulating away at the center of a residual imperial sphere of influence, a genius of neocolonialism? Or did his legend owe more to exaggeration and misguided speculation than to reality?

I have long been fascinated by the Foccart mystery. As a young journalist in the 1960s, increasingly preoccupied with the France that had struggled hard to keep an extraordinarily high profile in its former African colonies, I gradually became aware of Foccart, there in the shadows. The first references to him sprang from the pages of Le Canard Encha"nŽ, which was convinced that he was one of the controllers of the barbouzes (the bearded ones), the agents who used none too clean methods to fight the decidedly unclean OAS (Organisation ArmŽe Secrte) in the Algerian War. Later his unusual and secretive role in helping to prop up African leaders or mount clandestine operations was occasionally highlighted, and in the early 1970s Foccart took Le Canard to court for suggesting that he had bugged an eighteenth-century commode in Charles de Gaulle's office, and was awarded a symbolic one franc for having done so.

Then there was the story of all the files being removed from the ƒlysŽe Palace after de Gaulle resigned in April 1969, another hint of the secret world to which he was wedded. The avuncular Daniel PŽpy, an agronomist brought in to perform Foccart's functions in the post-de Gaulle interim reign of Senate President Alain Poher, told me that every document had been removed, and there had been no question of a handover brief. So PŽpy found himself trying to advise on difficult issues such as Chad and Biafra without a compass, or even a file of records.

Seven weeks later Foccart was back in the ƒlysŽe, and so presumably were the files. I once visited the office that Foccart notionally ran, the so-called Secretariat of the Community, de Gaulle's attempt to find a structure halfway between colonies and full independence, lodged in the H™tel de Noirmoutiers on the rue de Grenelle (the phone number was of that most delicious of Paris districts, before all-figure numbers came in, "Babylon"). The Community had no real function after it was overtaken by events during 1958-59, except perhaps to supervise payments to French army veterans in Africa, so it was an ideal front for whatever were Foccart's real activities. I called on the so-called press officer of this "virtual" organization, who was courteously uncommunicative, but I was struck by the complete absence of files, documents, papers of any kind. The high corridors and rooms were without shelves. Wherever the action was, it was not here.
I first actually saw Foccart during the ceremonies for the tenth anniversary of the independence of Cameroon in 1970 (it was in fact only the francophone part that was ten years old). Foccart, a bald poker-faced figure in a perpetual pair of dark glasses, was one of the guests, and though he was as usual self-effacing, it was possible to slip him into photos sitting there behind larger-than-life figures like Jean-BŽdel Bokassa. One photographer did his best to try to get an amusing picture of him walking past a poster for a gangster movie at YaoundŽ's Abbia cinema.

The only time I saw Foccart close up was during President Pompidou's visit to Gabon in 1972. After the presidential press conference there was a reception for journalists, and a cheeky Gabonese reporter asked, "Is it true, Monsieur le PrŽsident, that France is behind all these coups in Africa?" To which Pompidou replied, smiling broadly, referring to the figure who was, as always, standing behind him, "You'd better ask Monsieur Foccart." The man of the shadows, a little pink, remained impassive.

I saw him only once more, twenty-two years later, at the funeral of President FŽlix Houphou't-Boigny of C™te d'Ivoire, in Yamoussoukro in 1994. The French political class attended in such droves that one wondered who was running the government in Paris: President Mitterrand and the Socialists (as well as ex-President Giscard) flew in on the Concorde, and the Gaullist RPR leaders came on a separate flight and stayed overnight at Yamoussoukro's H™tel PrŽsident. I happened to be loitering in the foyer when they all arrived--the then-Premier Edouard Balladur, stiff and uncomfortable, Jacques Chirac, jovial and informal, a gaggle of Gaullist barons like former Prime Minister Pierre Messmer. And along with them walked slowly a frail little old man with his mouth drooping open. Could this really be the same Foccart, sinister man of mystery? It was said he was too ill to go to the basilica the next day, but watched the funeral service from his hotel room. It made one deeply aware of the passage of time, and of generations.

The veils around him were to some extent lifted late in his life, when he chose to talk to Philippe Gaillard, who has published his extended interviews with the man in two fat tomes titled Foccart Parle, under the joint publishing labels of Fayard and Jeune Afrique. While this partially lifted some of those veils, much ambiguity still envelops the more controversial aspects of his career. And in trying to defend himself, he created new questions. One doubts whether Foccart's diaries (1965-74), which Jeune Afrique is also to publish, will enlighten us much more. Apart from the special pleading and the historical spin-doctoring, it is certainly too late to destroy the Foccart legend, either as neocolonial devil or prime mover in the success story of France in post-colonial Africa.

One of the secrets of Foccart's power lay in his relations with the leadership of French-speaking Africa, which he took great pains to cultivate. "You are our fetish": the words are those of President Maurice YamŽogo of Upper Volta, spoken in 1960 to the visiting Foccart, then the newly appointed adviser to President de Gaulle on African affairs. It was the year in which Upper Volta became independent, along with a dozen or so other territories that had constituted France's African empire.

Many of them had not expected to achieve independence on their own. Upper Volta in particular, a landlocked stretch of land in the drought-prone Sahel, had only been put together as a territory in the 1930s. It was--and remains--one of the poorest countries in the world. In its short existence it had been part of the AOF (French West Africa), which collapsed on the eve of independence in 1960, with its eight territories going their separate ways, and most still feeling a desperate need for French protection.

Hence the naming of Foccart as a "fetish", reflecting a feeling that he had magical or mystical properties. Because of his unique connection to de Gaulle, he was even then a symbolic figure, the door through which access to the General was obtained. De Gaulle at that time was in the process of betraying French Algeria in the highest interest of state, paving the way for one of the more enduring aspects of his reputation, that of "the great decolonizer." The context was one of military defeat in Indochina and Algeria, so it was vital that futile colonial wars not be repeated south of the Sahara. This was France's last significant imperial stamping ground, and a successful decolonization, in the manner of the British, was important for the self-esteem, indeed for the future, of the French state.

Decolonization south of the Sahara did not happen as de Gaulle had intended. He had wanted a Franco-African Community that stopped short of total independence. But when SŽkou TourŽ's Guinea voted "no" in the 1958 referendum on that Community, the idea was effectively dead. Guinea was cast into outer darkness because of its decision and a Community of sorts came into existence, but the call of full independence proved too strong to resist.

Not really having planned for it, in 1960 de Gaulle had to improvise structures for a collection of small newly independent states, each with a flag, an anthem, and a seat at the UN, but often with precious little else. It was here that Foccart came to play an essential role, that of architect of the series of Cooperation accords with each new state in the sectors of finance and economy, culture and education, and the military. There were initially eleven countries involved: Mauritania, Senegal, C™te d'Ivoire, Dahomey (now Benin), Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Niger, Chad, Gabon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, and Madagascar. Togo and Cameroon, former UN Trust Territories, were also co-opted into the club. So, too, later on, were Mali and the former Belgian territories (Ruanda-Urundi, now Rwanda and Burundi, and Congo-Kinshasa), some of the ex-Portuguese territories, and Comoros and Djibouti, which had also been under French rule for many years but became independent in the 1970s. The whole ensemble was put under a new Ministry of Cooperation, created in 1961, separate from the Ministry of Overseas Departments and Territories (known as the DOM-TOM) that had previously run them all.

This Cooperation Ministry, focal point of the new evolving French system in Africa, regarded Foccart both as their "guarantor" and their advocate with de Gaulle. If the General had conceived the apparatus (though in fact some of it simply happened by improvisation), Foccart was the machine minder.

He was in many respects ideally equipped for this role. His family were white planters from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, so he already had the feel for overseas France. In 1940 he found it easy to become an unconditional Gaullist, joining the Free French soon after de Gaulle's celebrated June 18 BBC broadcast of that year. He was drawn to his natural milieu in the Free French security organization (the Bureau central de renseignements et d'action) under Passy. His unconditional loyalty only came to de Gaulle's attention after the war, but when it did it was a major asset. Foccart seemed to have had no political ambitions of his own, which made it easier for him to stay with de Gaulle through the traversŽe du desert, the wilderness years of the 1950s, when most of de Gaulle's political friends abandoned him. Foccart had been secretary-general of the RPF, the Gaullist party, in decline in the years before 1958, and, significantly, he had accompanied the lonely leader on his 1953 journey through all the French African territories. As he had in 1940, the General again found spiritual comfort there, and regeneration.

Foccart had also demonstrated his talents as a political organizer, especially of the Service d'action civique, the quasi-military units set up by the Gaullists to defend the Republic (seen by critics as neofascistic anticommunist militia), and his taste for semi-secret and clandestine operations, which were part of the legacy of the Free French as a resistance movement. It was this kind of "occult" view of the world that fitted him to carry out dirty work for the General in his fight with the OAS. This is the part of Foccart Parle that leaves one particularly unsatisfied, as he often pleads silence or tergiversates. But although he says he was not responsible for Algeria, he does admit that relations with the intelligence service (the SDECE) were among the responsibilities given him by the General. His biographer's claim that General de Gaulle asked Foccart to reorganize the SDECE (in view of the tainting of both the armed forces and the intelligence agencies by the movement for AlgŽrie Franaise) is indirectly confirmed, but there is not a clear picture of the organization of the barbouzes. Unsavory though this may have been, it was in the higher interests of the French state, as de Gaulle was in the delicate process of shedding French Algeria without destroying France.

What does come through both volumes of Foccart Parle, and PŽan's biography, is Foccart's total commitment to the General and to the cause of Gaullism, which, as he saw it, justified all manner of brutalities. The same reasoning, it can be said, was applied to African policy. Most of the two volumes of memoirs play down the unpleasant side of Foccartism, the still unexplained suspicion of dirty tricks and underhanded practices--the world of "parallel services" (or unofficial intelligence networks) with which the Foccart approach to Franafrique was surrounded. Foccartland, an expression used by PŽan to describe Gabon, but which could apply to the whole area, was almost a state of mind, which helps account for its durability.

One of the secrets of Foccart's success lay in his control of information. His SDECE connections were one aspect of this, but he also had a remarkable network of personal contacts through Africa. It was this that led to the belief that he ran his own private intelligence services. He explains it thus in Foccart Parle:

"I disposed of several antennae. It is correct that I was a well informed man. Many people are inclined to think that someone who has numerous precise, exact and rapid pieces of information can only have obtained them by dubious means and has clandestine networks. However, it is simply a question of organization. Why was I well informed? First because I knew a lot of people in France and in Africa, who were themselves well informed, each one in his sector because of his political, administrative or economic functions and his contacts. They knew my telephone numbers and I knew theirs. We called each other without particular motives, simply to maintain relations."

It was a sleazy world, however, one in which a great deal of manipulation was required to maintain French influence. One revealing moment comes when Foccart admits that the French secret services eliminated the Cameroonian Marxist leader FŽlix-Roland MoumiŽ in 1960. First, he volunteers the information that there had been an "execution." Asked who decided it, he responds evasively that "the archives will one day answer your question", a fall-back position he often adopts. Gaillard then quotes a book by Pascal Krop in which it is written, "DebrŽ, advised by Foccart, decided to eliminate the irritant", which produces the cool response, "To tell the truth, not particularly Foccart." However one reads this, Foccart is conceding that he was among those who took the decision to murder someone who was inconvenient to French interests. A legacy, perhaps, of the resistance mentality?

Maybe it is this sinister undercurrent that makes Foccart Parle such compulsive reading. You never quite know when you are going to come up against it. One is also struck by Foccart's mastery of the detail of African politics, the ethnic tapestries, the sometimes brutal thumbnail sketches, related with complete detachment, of those who probably thought of him as a friend. He had a card-index mind that could produce at will the names of the children of each African head of state, revealing him as an Africanist extraordinaire, and he possessed a measure of instinctive courtesy and priestly sympathy for those with whom he dealt (he writes almost with affection of a murderous clown-like Bokassa). But there is always a sense that everything he does is performed as an almost religious duty in the service of the General, and thus, automatically, of France.

There is a story that Louis Joxe, deputy prime minister under de Gaulle, when asked what Foccart's function was, replied laconically, "copinage des prŽsidents et la fin du mois" (which translates loosely as "nursemaiding presidents and making sure that African civil servants were paid at the end of the month"). In Foccart Parle he tells of how he guaranteed a loan for President GnassingbŽ Eyadema of Togo to buy an apartment in Paris, and there are countless other stories, told both by him and others, of his disponibilitŽ. But as well as the cozy, sanitized image fostered by such mundane episodes, which serve to play down the underhand, clandestine activities, there is also the sense of someone who glories in his own legend. He refers almost approvingly to the fact that his reputation as a man of mystery, a spymaster-general, caused many to contact him or seek his advice or even tap into his power. Which brings us back to Foccart as the "fetish", and to the secret of his African success.

A mystique of all-powerfulness (in his case deriving from the strong magic of de Gaulle, that greatest of all fetishes) gave him much of his African credibility. He was also astute enough to find a fellow machine minder of the system in President Houphou't-Boigny, who had a similar mystique, and came to be considered the doyen of francophone African leaders. Some reports suggested that Foccart and Houphou't spoke on the phone every Wednesday, and there is no doubt that he considered the Ivoirian leader the African centerpiece of his network. They operated together on a number of issues. Interventions such as that in Gabon in 1964 and Chad in 1969 were encouraged by the Foccart-Houphou't tandem. The most significant collaboration between Foccart and Houphou't was the way they tried to persuade de Gaulle to back the Biafran secession from Nigeria in 1967. Despite the pressures they exerted, however, de Gaulle refused to recognize Biafra, and, in retrospect, so guarded and elliptical are some of Foccart's statements that one cannot be sure what he really wanted or expected from de Gaulle at the time.

Under Pompidou (1969-74), Foccart's situation was never quite the same as it was with de Gaulle, even though he kept his adviser status as a Gaullist totem. By then Foccart was fully aware of his symbolic status and refused to come out into the open by accepting the post of minister of cooperation, just as he refused it from Chirac when the latter became prime minister in 1986. Interestingly, President Giscard d'ƒstaing removed Foccart in 1974 for the same reason, because he was too representative of the Gaullist past from which Giscard sought to break. But by then the Foccart system and the Foccart style were so entrenched that everyone had to have a "Foccart", and Giscard employed Foccart's deputy RŽnŽ Journiac, who operated very much in the master's manner.

Foccart says that Journiac, out of prudence, seldom consulted him, although they remained friends. But he is very critical of two special operations: the fiasco of the mercenary landing in Benin in January 1977 (with which he denies having had any connection, and would not have supported because it was badly conceived and executed); and "OpŽration Barracuda", the military intervention that deposed Emperor Bokassa in September 1979. Ironically, Foccart writes sympathetically of Bokassa, whom he sees as a fool who was stitched up to save Giscard's face. The intervention was a gross admission of failure by Giscard, who cultivated Bokassa because, according to Foccart, Giscard was obsessed with hunting game, in which the Central African Republic offered special opportunities. Of such is the stuff of politics made.

During his twelve years out of office, Foccart kept up his network and maintained his telephonic conversations, and in 1986 was rehabilitated by the new Premier Chirac as an adviser on African affairs for the two years of "cohabitation." When Chirac finally made it to the presidency in 1995, Foccart was brought back to the ƒlysŽe at the age of eighty-one, in the main because he still had remarkable contacts with African leaders such as President Omar Bongo of Gabon, who had been one of his original protŽgŽs.

Although to critics of French policy in Africa (by now increasingly vocal in France itself) this looked like "back to square Foccart", the tide of history was moving on and France's system in Africa was increasingly looking as if it were coming undone. The psychological turning point was the devaluation of the CFA franc by 50 percent in January 1994, which came a month after the death of Houphou't-Boigny. In his published interviews, Foccart is deeply critical of the devaluation, even though some of the benefits it brought, such as improved export earnings, were apparent even within a year. But it had been a terrible blow to the psychological (some would say umbilical) bonds between France and the prŽ carrŽ (the backyard), the feeling of family that Foccart had cherished. It had the added disadvantage, in the eyes of West Africans, of having been proposed by the Americans, the World Bank, and the IMF. Balladur, the prime minister who cut the Gordian knot of devaluation, had already surrendered ultimate control over the franc zone economies in a famous letter to franc zone heads of state in September 1993, and the devaluation several months later appeared to clinch it. Thus Houphou't-Boigny's funeral in February 1994 seems in retrospect almost like an act of mourning for the death of a relationship.

Foccart's own death had the air of an epilogue. Despite Chirac's glad-handing assurances to African leaders that everything was the same, it soon became increasingly clear that it was not. Apart from the new dominance of the Washington financial institutions over the economies, there appeared to be a loss of military nerve on the part of the French.

This, in fact, came from the Rwandan debacle at the end of the Mitterrand presidency, which exposed France not just as having been on the wrong (i.e., losing) side, but of having their allies, the extremist Hutus, exposed as gŽnocidaires. Even the French military intervention "OpŽration Turquoise", which occurred soon after the genocide in July 1994, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, seemed like a guilty reflex with an odor of cover-up. The latest solo French intervention was in the Central African Republic, to prop up the democratically elected regime of President Ange-FŽlix PatassŽ in Bangui against a mutinous army three times in 1996. Even though it had been possible to bring in an inter-African force in December, the event that had been feared above all--the death of French troops--occurred in January, when four French soldiers were killed by the mutineers. This was the one thing that could have a dramatic effect on public opinion in France; the bloody reprisals that followed also did the French no credit.

Even more seriously, France proved unable to put together a coalition for a "humanitarian" intervention in eastern Zaire late in 1996, as the wildfire rebellion of Laurent Kabila exacerbated the refugee problem there. There were too many suspicions that the real intention was to prop up--once again--the moribund regime of the dying Mobutu Sese Seko. Once the bulk of the Hutu refugees returned to Rwanda, the Americans in particular were unwilling to join a UN-sponsored force, even though the UN Security Council had already approved it. And without the Americans the French proposal had no hope, for France was broadly disliked throughout the region, not least in Paul Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwanda.

This setback to French hopes released a visceral anti-Americanism among the French, who detected an Anglo-Saxon plot against francophone Africa. This was Foccart's element, tracing back to de Gaulle's phobias, and although by 1997 he was seriously ill, it may well have been that France's prolonged support for Mobutu long after it was reasonable was due to Foccart's influence and advice. Mobutu had been sucked into Franafrique in 1970 after ten years as a CIA protŽgŽ, and the old habit died hard. Foccart was said to have been telephoning African personalities on the subject of Zaire right up to the week before his death.

Certainly the fall of Mobutu two months after Foccart's death was a serious blow to whatever remained of Foccartland. The smooth arrival of the Kabila regime in Kinshasa (although not without its own problems) marks a major power shift in central Africa, and France's impotence in the face of the upheaval in early June 1997 in Brazzaville (where French troops simply evacuated French nationals) has only confirmed the impression of a crisis. The humbling of the Gaullist party in the parliamentary elections in June augments that crisis, in part because cohabitation brings the attendant uncertainties about French power to the fore.

So although Foccart's system proved highly resilient in the past (evident when Mitterrand took over in 1981 and slipped easily into Gaullist clothes, with his own Foccart-like advisers, including his son Jean-Christophe), the situation is now different. The Socialists have done a certain amount to reassure disillusioned francophone Africans by trying to repair some of the damage done in recent years by the brutal and over-rigid policies on immigration, the more hurtful for having been implemented particularly by Gaullists, who were supposed to have special connections with Africa going back to the Second World War. But the realities of France's difficult economic situation are likely to dominate policy, and there is a strong current in all French political parties to both "banalize" and "moralize" relations with Africa. It is unlikely that the power of the "fetish" can be exercised from beyond the grave.

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