African policy of Giscard d'Estaing: between ambivalences and ruptures

An election poster by presidential candidate Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in March 1981. getty Images

Text by: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

17 mins

French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who has just passed away at the age of 94, has left his mark on the history of Franco-African relations.

He took office in 1974 promising to give new impetus to France's African policy.

But under the weight of business and embarrassing revelations about his mercantilism and compromises, the man saw his popularity drop in Africa during his seven-year term.

Return on the career made of ruptures and ambivalences of Giscard “the African”.


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Many French people who were of voting age in


still remember the presidential campaign opposing Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to François Mitterrand that year and the cruel trick played by clandestine poster-stealers on the outgoing president, candidate for his own estate.

On some of the president-candidate's posters, they had replaced the eyes with two shiny butterflies that lit up in the night in the light of car headlights.

It was of course an allusion, as inventive as it is malicious, to the scandal of the diamond wafer worth one million francs (between 650,000 and 700,000 euros) that VGE had received as a gift from the head of the Central African state.

Jean-Bédel Bokassa


The affair had poisoned the last years of Giscard's seven-year term.

The poster took all its salt with the reminder of the slogan of the previous presidential campaign of this same Giscard, affirming that he " 

looked at France in the eyes



From the depths of the Bangui diamond mines

 ," said the gossips.

Still, VGE lost the ballot against its socialist opponent.

For analysts, there is no shadow of a doubt that the “ 

diamond affair

 ”, which had made all Giscardian policy in Africa suspect, weighed heavily on the political fate of the third president of the Fifth French Republic. .

A finding confirmed by Claude Wauthier, who was one of the first historians of African policy in France.

The late author of

Four Presidents and Africa

(1) wrote in his opus that if “ 

Africa had rather brought luck to General de Gaulle

 ”, it played “ 

conversely, a rather harmful role […] in the political career of President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing


French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing warmly welcomed by his Central African counterpart, Jean Bedel Bokassa, at his arrival in Bangui, 5 March 1975. AFP

An almost mystical fascination

The first words of the successor of General de Gaulle and Pompidou on the role he intended to play in Africa were nevertheless promising.


will have to give a new impetus to cooperation between France and the French-speaking African states,

" candidate Giscard said during an interview with the ORTF during the 1974 presidential campaign. proposed to re-establish the Secretary of State for Cooperation, abolished under the presidency of Georges Pompidou.


As almost irremovable Minister of Finance and the Economy in most governments under de Gaulle and Pompidou since 1962, VGE had seen the mechanism of the franc zone at work, which was the umbilical cord between France and its former African colonies,

 ”recalls Antoine Glaser (2), political scientist and specialist in France-Africa.

And to add: “ 

Of all the presidential candidates of 1974, Giscard was undoubtedly the one who knew best the African countries and their economic potentialities.

As Minister, he regularly met African decision makers.

Along the way, he became aware of the need to give new impetus to Franco-African cooperation and to change its traditional format made up of interference and defense of political and economic interests in which it had been locked up since independence

” .

Giscard's beginnings in Africa actually date back to a period prior to his entry into government.

It was his taste for hunting that one of his cousins, head of an African investment bank, who had led VGE for the first time in black Africa in the early 1960s would have initiated him. doubt at the origin of the fascination that the future French president felt for " 

the immense African night

", the discovery of which responded to "

insistent dreams of youth

 ", as he wrote himself in his essay autobiographical, published in 1988,

Le Pouvoir et la vie


This almost mystical fascination, coupled with polemics on the ambivalences of a diplomacy placed under the sign of corruption and family affairism, has long characterized African Giscardism, obscuring its innovative aspect, breaking with

Gaullian practice

in matters of relations with Africa.

Ruptures which make VGE the first post-colonial French president, even if the acts taken in this direction have not necessarily succeeded

 ", says Antoine Glaser.


Valéry Giscard d'Estaing during the 7th France-Africa summit on May 9, 1980 in Nice.


According to specialists, the ruptures advocated by VGE relate as much to the personality and specific career of this new President of the Republic as to the diplomatic and geopolitical context.

Franco-African relations took a new turn at the start of the 1970s with the crumbling of the Gaullian dream of a "French-style 


 " and the insistent demand by some of the former African colonies for the renegotiation of bilateral agreements concluded in France. independence, “the 

keystone of the relationship between the old metropolis and its“



 ” according to historian Jean-Pierre Bat.

This evolution of Franco-African dialogue, brilliantly recounted by the latter in his historical overview of French policy in Africa from 1959 to the present day (4), is the context in which the 1974 presidential election took place, which led VGE to the Elysee.

The most spectacular measure taken by Giscard in the wake of his election consisted in suppressing the General Secretariat for African and Malagasy Affairs, thereby dismissing its historic leader

Jacques Foccart


Advisor to General de Gaulle and Pompidou on political and diplomatic relations with the former African colonies, the latter embodied the Gaullian vision of Franco-African relations.

The network of France-Africa relations set up by French and African personalities on the eve of independence was an integrated system - political, military, financial - based on a community of destinies between France and its former colonies

 ", specifies Antoine Glaser.


continues the specialist,

the internal political changes experienced by the countries of the "backyard" as well as the geopolitical changes at work on the continent from the end of the 1960s made this vision ineffective, pushing French and African decision-makers to imagine new methods of convergence with their African partners.


It is undoubtedly this awareness of the need to update relations with their former metropolis which explains why the disgrace of Jacques Foccart did not give rise to any particular remonstrances in the African capitals close to the " 

Monsieur Afrique

 " of the Gaullist period.

Especially since, as soon as elected, Giscard re-established, in accordance with his electoral promise, the Ministry of Cooperation which now exercises the attributions of the former General Secretariat for African and Malagasy Affairs.

The reconstitution of the Ministry of


met the wishes of most of the African leaders in place.

During the last months of 1974, they took part in the vast consultation initiated by the new minister in order to formulate the future orientations of French cooperation in Africa.

The Abelin report, named after the minister in office and published in October 1975, lays the foundations for the “ 

new French cooperation policy


The two pillars of this new policy are the broadening of the field of geopolitical concerns at the expense sometimes of historical solidarities and the taking into account of economic considerations.


If in the 1970s the relations that France continued to maintain with its historical allies on the continent, in particular with Senegal and the Ivory Coast, remained close, the seven-year term of VGE was also marked by the opening up of French policy. towards new partners, who are not traditionally part of the

French-speaking “



Reconciliation with

Sékou Touré's


and Nigeria in West Africa or, in the Maghreb, with Algeria where Giscard d'Estaing is the first French head of state to surrender and with Morocco shunned by France since

the Ben Barka affair

, is part of Paris' ambition to now get out of the Gaullian politico-strategic matrix and remove " 

the ambiguities of the postcolonial period


The State visit carried out by the tenant of the Elysee Palace in Conakry in December 1978 wearing around his neck the red scarf of the pioneers of the Guinean anti-colonial revolution, just like the words of the speech (" 

La France historique salue l 'Independent Algeria

 ') that Giscard pronounced on his arrival in Algiers in April 1975, were inspired by this approach that some already qualified as " 



Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Houari Boumédiène at an official dinner during the French President's visit to Algiers, April 10, 1975. Gilbert UZAN / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The priority given to the economic and commercial dimension constitutes the second pillar of renewed Franco-African cooperation.

The Abelin report recalls this in black and white by calling for a “ 


 ” of trade flows in favor of areas “

directly linked to the economic development of States


The France-Africa summits, initiated under Pompidou and institutionalized by the Giscardian administration, become the place par excellence for the development of this “ 

new cooperation

 ” now based on “ 

a reciprocity of interests rather than relationships of dependence


The Head of State will make it a privileged forum to assert his anti-imperialist convictions, calling for Africa to be " 

left to the Africans


Organized alternately in France and in Africa, five editions of the meetings at the top of the Franco-African family took place under the seven-year term of President Giscard d'Estaing.

Since 1976, these meetings also welcome the Portuguese-speaking countries and from 1980 the English-speaking ones, reflecting the broadening of the very idea of ​​economic cooperation, now irreducible to a tête-à-tête between the former metropolis and its former colonies. .

At the same time, France's aim is to promote “the 

development of an Africa which presents itself […] by 2000 as one of Europe's primary partners

 ”, as the Abelin report reminds us.

The signing in June 1975 of the first

Lomé convention

between the European Economic Community (EEC) and its partners in the South designated by the acronym ACP (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) constitutes in a way the materialization of this


grand design

". which is resolutely Euro-African within its reach.

More problematic will prove to be the proposals suggesting the establishment by the Western countries of an exceptional fund for the promotion of Africa, just like the " 


 " project bringing together oil-producing countries, industrialized consumer countries and countries. underdeveloped.

These projects launched at the Franco-African summit in 1979, in response to the oil crises of the time, will remain wishful thinking.

The fact remains that it is a page which is turning in Franco-African relations, even if the shadow of Jacques Foccart will still hover over the Élysée for a long time to the extent that

René Journiac

and Martin Kirsch, successive advisers for Africa of President Giscard d'Estaing, both came from the former General Secretariat of African and Malagasy Affairs.

France's degraded image

The France of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (d) will ask Morocco of King Hassan II (l) to lend him a hand during the two "Shaba wars" in 1977 and 1978. AFP

Despite its innovative initiatives and a real ambition to change the paradigm in terms of economic and strategic cooperation, VGE's rating continued to decline in Africa during its seven-year term.

The Bokassa affair

is not unrelated to it, because it has definitively tarnished the image of the French Head of State among his African peers who, as Jean-Pierre Bat writes, granted Bokassa " 

only one second place

 ”, believing that the escapades of the Central African leader gave“ 

a negative image of the African ruling class



They openly made fun of Giscard

, adds Antoine Glaser.

Especially since the French president had been completely instrumentalized by Bokassa, who forced him to follow him in the masquerade of his coronation in 1977


Paradoxically, the overthrow two years later of the emperor, who in the meantime became a bloodthirsty dictator, will not be seen in African capitals as a deliverance, but as an intolerable interference of the old metropolis, motivated less by rejection. of the dictatorship only by the strategic need to put an end to the attempts at rapprochement between the Central African Republic and Libya, the priority enemy of France at the gates of its “ 



Operation "Barracuda", the name of the intervention of French troops in the Central African Republic in 1979, was in fact part of the continuity of the Gaullo-Foccartian gunboat policy aimed at ensuring the preservation of a French sphere of influence. in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Giscard years were characterized by the multiplication of French military interventions.

While only two French military operations are recorded in Africa, Gabon and Chad, under the presidency of De Gaulle, France intervenes six times between 1977 and 1981: twice in Zaire (April 1977 then May-June 1978) , in Mauritania (November 1977 - June 1978), in Chad (early 1978 - May 1980) and in the Central African Republic (September 1979), not to mention the attempts at destabilization organized behind the scenes by the French counter-espionage services, in particular in Angola, in the former Dahomey (now Benin) and in the Comoros.

Supported by friendly regimes on the spot who found their benefit in exchange for economic positions favorable to France for its exports or its supplies of mineral raw materials, French military operations were the subject of fierce criticism in international forums.

His opponents accused France of being the “ 

gendarme of the West

 ” or even the “ 

Cuba of the United States

 ”, in reference to the landing of Fidel Castro's troops in 1975 in Angola, guided by the former USSR.

Exhausted by its long Vietnamese adventure, Washington made no secret of its satisfaction at seeing France take care of the maintenance of peace in an Africa which has become the new theater of East-West confrontations.

Criticisms from the international community were sometimes relayed to the National Assembly in Paris, where we wondered about the inconsistencies of the major French maneuvers, especially in Chad.

These maneuvers targeted predatory neighboring Libya, while leaving French companies to do business with Gaddafi's hated regime.

The parliamentarians were also worried about the degraded image of France in southern Africa where the intensification of its traditional military cooperation with South Africa, still under apartheid, sparked a real outcry among the countries of the so-called group of " 

Front line

 ", then at war against Pretoria.

Two soldiers of the Foreign Legion, armed with MAT 49 during the Battle of Kolwezi in 1978, in front of a GMC truck.

Wikimedia / davric

Of course, cooperation with South Africa had been inaugurated under General de Gaulle.

However, when taking office in 1974, hadn't Valéry Giscard d'Estaing proclaimed that he wanted to distance himself from the legacy of his predecessors?

The expectations aroused no doubt explain that when taking stock of Giscard the African, the image of the outgoing president loudly celebrating his legionaries jumping on Kolwezi or anxious to sell nuclear power plants in Pretoria could seem very distant from man. who wanted to return “ 

Africa to Africans


Giscardian France had allowed itself to be trapped, like its previous avatars, in the quest for a policy of influence and domination inherited from history, without succeeding in establishing a strategy based on the reciprocity of the interests involved.

The dubious affairs, the private stays of the president, his opaque interpersonal relations with his counterparts necessarily placed under the sign of corruption following the revelations on gifts accepted without discernment, weighed on the African policy of Giscard and beyond on his presidency. .


Four presidents and Africa: De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand

, by Claude Wauthier.

Collection "Immediate History", Éditions du Seuil, 1995.


Antoine Glaser is the author of numerous books on Franco-African relations.

His latest book is entitled:

Our Dear Spies in Africa

(Fayard, 2018)


Power and Life

(Volume 1), by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Editions Compagnie 12, 1988.


The Foccart syndrome: French policy in Africa, from 1959 to the present day

, by Jean-Pierre Bat.

Gallimard editions, 2012.


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  • Valéry Giscard d'Estaing

  • Central African Republic

  • Africa