Some people have been impressed enough by the French government’s opposition to U.S. Iraq policies to carry "Viva La France" signs in demonstrations against the U.S./British invasion of Iraq. This idea is a big mistake. The French and U.S. capitalists both spread death and misery for workers, only on a different scale and in different places. This article reviews some of the imperialist actions of French capitalists, and the scams they use to cover them up.
The French capitalists emerged from the Second World War in uneasy control over a huge colonial empire. They then held over 4,000,000 square miles of colonial territory including Vietnam, Syria, French Guiana, and nearly half of Africa, including, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, etc. Unable to put down bitterly fought anti-colonial rebellions, especially in Vietnam and Algeria, France conceded independence to most of its former colonies in the 1960s. It developed a neo-colonial apparatus to dominate its former African colonies and extend its power over other French-speaking Africans. A key strategy of French capitalists for control of Africa is its recruitment and support of pet dictators, for example, Mobutu in the former Zaire, Bongo in Gabon, Houphouët-Boigny in the Ivory Coast, and Eyadema in Togo. Bribed with French government money in the form of "development aid" or secret funds from Elf, the oil company formerly owned by the French government (now TotalFinaElf), these hatchet men make sweetheart deals with French companies for resources like oil, uranium and other minerals, wood, etc., and stuff billions into Swiss banks while African workers live in miserable poverty.
The French government maintains control of the currency and credit of many French-speaking African countries, but financial power alone has not been nearly enough to maintain domination over Africa by French capital. A network French intelligence agencies, Elf operatives, and friendly dictators have carried out numerous assassinations of politicians and activists, organized coups, and fomented civil wars. An essential part of French neo-colonial policy has also been repeated direct military intervention. France still maintains military bases in five African countries, and has sent in its troops several dozen times since1960, sometimes openly, sometimes disguised as mercenaries. As recently as September, 2002, both French and U. S. troops intervened in the Ivory Coast. The most notorious French intervention, however, was its support of the "Hutu Power" mass murderers in Rwanda, an intervention which exposed the murderous nature of French African policy.
Before independence in 1962, Belgium ruled Rwanda as a colony, pitting the minority Tutsi against the majority Hutu. After seizing power in 1973, Juvenel Habyarimana set up a Hutu-dominated regime that organized persecution and ethnic cleansing of Tutsi. From the mid-70s, France armed and trained Habyarimana’s military, and sent French troops in the early1990s to protect his regime from a Tutsi-controlled guerrilla movement, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR). When Habyarimana died in a plane crash in 1994, his "Hutu Power" government started a previously organized massacre of Tutsi, killing nearly a million over a three-month period.
France sent more troops, but instead of stopping the mass murder, they helped protect Europeans and the Hutu organizers of the genocide, getting them out of the country ahead of the FPR. The U. S. government helped the massacre, too, by opposing U. N. Security Council intervention, even after the reality of genocide had become widely known. Why should these imperialists bother to stop the killing? As French President Mitterand said to an associate in the summer of 1994, "In those countries, a genocide is not too important." (Le Figaro, 1/12/1998)
After being embarrassed by its role in the Rwandan genocide, the French government tried to polish up its image by cutting back its military forces, but continues to intervene to prop up its African puppets. Of course, it isn’t always successful, being disappointed when in 1997 the U. S.-backed Kabila family ended up running the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
French capitalists are acutely aware of their rivalry with the U. S. business empire, in Africa and elsewhere. In his recent trial for bribery of French and African politicians, the former CEO of Elf justified his actions by the need for his company to compete with "an Anglo-Saxon world." "We are David against Goliath. The politicians must support us everywhere." (Le Monde, 4/2/03) Leading the newly strengthened European Union, French capitalists have recently overcome—temporarily, at least—their traditional rivalry with German bosses in order to challenge the U.S. over Iraq. This E.U. challenge to the U.S. will certainly not go away, whether the U.S. and France are able to make deals over Iraq or not.
French capitalists are particularly worried that U. S. oil companies are challenging them in West Africa, which the French bosses have regarded as their "backyard," where there has been a huge expansion of oil exploration. When the government of Congo-Brazzaville was going to do business with Exxon and Occidental, Elf helped the "Cobra" militias of Denis Sassou Nguesso conquer power in 1997, killing thousands. In other areas, however, the big US oil companies are making important inroads. ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and Petronas (a Malaysian company) are building a big project in Chad (a former French colony), without TotalFinaElf participation. In non-French speaking Africa, TotalFinaElf and ExxonMobil have both paid huge "signing bonuses" to the government of Angola to develop major new fields there. ChevronTexaco, BP Amoco, and Royal Dutch/Shell to are also active in Angola.
As David to the U. S. Goliath, the French government often presents itself as anti-imperialist, advocating "North-South cooperation" of rich and poor countries. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the French government has posed as a friend of the Arabs, embargoing arms sales to Israel for many years, while doing business with countries under U. S. sanctions, like Iran, Iraq and Libya. The widely read French magazine Le Monde Diplomatique, which is published in many languages and subsidized by the French government, is quick to denounce CIA crimes, and features liberal critics of U.S. policy, like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. It has only mild criticisms, however, of France’s imperial crimes in Africa. Le Monde Diplomatique, is one of the main sponsors of the World Social Forum, a big conference held yearly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and also subsidized by the French government. Claiming to be anti-imperialist, the Forum opposes "neo-liberal globalization," (i.e, the WTO and free trade) and advocates "returning control" of the movement of capital to nation-states, instead of U. S.-dominated organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. In other words, the Forum wants to reform capitalism, not end it, and do so in ways that would benefit capitalist powers other than the U. S.
Whatever fig leaves it puts on, the naked truth is that France is an imperialist state, driven by its corporations’ drive for profits to exploit millions of workers, and led by racist killers. Its imperial interests make it resist its rival, the U. S. empire, but that does not make it an ally of workers. Instead of "Viva la France," the slogan for workers of all countries should be "Death to all imperialists."