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Relations with France

In recent years, Zaire has taken pride in its standing as the second-largest French-speaking country, after France itself, and has developed its relations with France as an alternative to the thornier relationship with Belgium. During the First Republic, France and its former colonies tended to side with conservatives and federalists in the former Belgian colony, against Patrice Lumumba and the radical, unitarist forces. In December 1963, after the Katangan secession had been defeated, France signed a treaty of cultural and technical cooperation with Zaire.

Links with France were strengthened after Mobutu's coup of 1965. His first major initiative in African regional policy was the creation of a Union of the States of Central Africa (Union des États d'Afrique Centrale--UEAC), which initially linked Zaire to the two least advantaged states of former French Equatorial Africa, namely Chad and the Central African Republic, but aimed to form a pole of attraction for other states. The French apparently took seriously the threat the new organization posed to the Customs Union of Central African States (Union Douanière des États de l'Afrique Centrale--UDEAC) and launched a diplomatic counterattack. French emissaries prevailed upon the Central African Republic to withdraw from the UEAC, which then limped along for several years as a partnership of Chad and Zaire, which lack a common border.

Under France's President Charles de Gaulle, who had been interested in the continent for many years, African affairs became part of the "reserved domain" of the president. This quasiconstitutional arrangement continued under de Gaulle's successors and led to the development of personal diplomacy, including state visits, working visits, and so-called "personal visits," a style of diplomacy that Mobutu found very congenial.

At the beginning of 1971, French finance minister Valéry Giscard d'Estaing visited Zaire, where he met with Mobutu. This visit initiated a personal relationship between Mobutu and Giscard d'Estaing, which continued and developed after the latter became president. Starting in 1973, France became an important military partner of Zaire. Mobutu ordered Mirage jet fighters, Puma helicopters, and other items from France, and the following year the two countries signed an accord on "technical military cooperation" (see Foreign Influences , ch. 5).

The election of Giscard d'Estaing, in May 1974, as successor to President Georges Pompidou, led to a reaffirmation of France's African role. Giscard d'Estaing visited Kinshasa a year later and received a triumphal welcome from over 1 million Zairians. Observers noted that Giscard d'Estaing was being warmly welcomed in part because Mobutu was distancing himself somewhat from Belgium and from the United States. Speaking to the leadership of the MPR, the French president called for a meeting of copper producers and consumers. Zaire reportedly agreed to grant a French company new prospecting rights for copper in Zaire, in exchange for which France would accord Zaire a moratorium on repayment of debts. And France announced it would equip Zaire with an ultra-modern satellite telecommunications system. The radio and television installations of the Voice of Zaire, the largest in Africa, built by French companies with French government aid, opened in 1976. Since then, France has continued to devote a major portion of its aid to Zaire to the communications sector.

When the FLNC invaded Shaba Region in 1977 and the Belgians and Americans hesitated to assist Mobutu, France stepped in. The French government reportedly responded to Mobutu's call for help by asking King Hassan II of Morocco to supply troops, so that the conflict would appear to be settled "among Africans." Obviously, however, France's role in transporting the Moroccans to Zaire was crucial. During the second Shaba invasion in 1978, France upstaged Belgium, sending its Foreign Legion paratroopers straight to Kolwezi while the Belgians landed at Kamina. Thereafter, France trained and advised two Zairian airborne brigades. Again in 1989, France upstaged Belgium, when President François Mitterrand announced at the Francophone Summit that his country was writing off debt totalling US$2.6 billion owed by thirty-five of the world's poorest countries, including Zaire. The subsequent Belgian announcement that much of Zaire's debt would be written off or rescheduled appeared anticlimactic.

France was slower than Belgium or the United States to condemn the Mobutu regime or to cut off support. It did not, for example, cut off aid following the killing of students at Lubumbashi in May 1990--a step taken by Belgium, the EC, Canada, and the United States. France and Belgium both sent troops to restore order and protect foreign nationals in the aftermath of a mutiny and violence by unpaid paratroopers in Kinshasa in September 1991. Then, as events unfolded in Zaire, France, too, cut off economic aid to Zaire in October 1991. In addition, the French government, together with Belgium and the United States, in 1992 put pressure on President Mobutu's government to proceed with the national conference and to hold multiparty legislative elections that year.

In August 1992, France warmly endorsed the Tshisekedi government, exhibiting far fewer reservations on its viability than Belgium and the United States. The prospect of renewed French aid to Zaire also was addressed.

But 1993 immediately introduced new tensions into relations between France and Zaire. During rioting by Zairian military personnel that began in January 1993, the French ambassador to Zaire was killed, apparently in an act of random violence. French troops were sent to Zaire to evacuate French nationals. In the aftermath of the violence, France joined Belgium and the United States in demanding that Mobutu live up to his agreement and transfer power to the Tshisekedi government. Like Belgium and the United States, France also has steadfastly refused to recognize the Mobutu-appointed Birindwa government. But all three Western nations have stopped short of taking stronger action against Mobutu. Indeed, France, even more than Belgium or the United States, is regarded as unwilling to impose economic sanctions on the Mobutu regime or to confiscate Mobutu's assets, believing that any strong actions against Mobutu could harm French interests in Zaire.

Taking advantage of the West's indecision and lack of resolve, Mobutu enjoyed some diplomatic successes in 1993, particularly at the October 1993 Francophone Summit in Mauritius. According to some reports, Mobutu definitely made his presence felt. Far from being treated as a pariah, he stood next to Mitterrand at the official ceremonies. Moreover, Mitterrand received him at a meeting along with leaders of Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. The official French line was that Mitterrand had agreed to the meeting only to encourage Mobutu to put off elections in order to allow the opposition more time to organize. But some observers saw the meeting as an indication of a French softening toward Mobutu. Earlier in the year, French permission for Mobutu to enter France in order to receive dental treatment was similarly viewed. But in that instance the public outcry was so great that France was forced to back down and denied Mobutu a visa for any subsequent visits to France.

In September 1993, a new French ambassador arrived in Kinshasa. The appointment made France one of the few Western nations to maintain normal diplomatic relations with Zaire. Most other countries have reduced representation to the chargé d'affaires level.

Later in 1993, there were reports that France had tired of Tshisekedi's "intransigence" and no longer supported him as prime minister. There seems to be some evidence that French support for the Tshisekedi government is not unequivocal, as French statements appeared to offer general support for transitional political forces rather than specific support for Tshisekedi.

Data as of December 1993

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