Gabon - France Relations
France has a permanent military presence in Gabon with some 750 Army personnel [other sources report nearly 1,000 troops] and an air detachment. The 6e Bataillon d'Infanterie de Marine (6e BIMa) is stationed in Libreville (Gabon) This has helped maintain internal stability.
The long history of interaction with France and the French military continues to influence Gabonese military and civilian attitudes toward the military. Gabon signed a mutual defense treaty with France in August 1974 and again in 1985. France maintains an active group of advisers embedded within the Gabonese military. French advisers and French military detachments join the Gabonese military on all significant training maneuvers.
The most significant involvement of the French military is the French military base (Camp de Gaulle) near the airport in Libreville. France often uses this military base as a staging ground for regional operations. The ability to rapidly deploy troops from Gabon throughout the region is a key advantage for the French. The French military has also become involved in domestic civil unrest within Gabon. For instance, on multiple occasions the French military has deployed to Port-Gentil to put down riots. In 1964, the French military moved to overturn the coup orchestrated by the Gabonese military, demonstrating its resolve to protect French interests in Gabon.
Economic and social ties with France remain strong in contemporary Gabon. The French maintain a strong political and economic influence in the country in order to retain access to Gabonís abundant natural resources. Today, a significant French expatriate population resides in Gabon. French residents own and run many of the profitable restaurants and hotels frequented by wealthy urban residents. Although some Gabonese resent the contemporary French presence, most accept French political and economic in20 volvement as an unavoidable fact. Nevertheless, this resentment may lead to acts of violence in times of political tension or transition. For instance, following the election of President Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba in 2009, rioters and protesters targeted French personnel and facilities with violence. This was likely due to the perception among Gabonese that the French supported Ali Ben and assisted his rise to power.
In Gabon, French expatriates interact within closed social networks, enjoying a lifestyle that is beyond the reach of most Gabonese. They are sometimes viewed as taking well-paying jobs away from locals. However, Gabonese do admire the French, particularly their cultural and scholarly traditions. For instance, many Gabonese intellectuals choose to further their studies in France, thus reinforcing the cultural and scholarly ties between the two countries. Exposure to French culture remains a status indicator for elite Gabonese.
Today, while French influence remains strong, most Gabonese also feel a growing sense of nationalism. Gabon was unified during the French colonial era when residents of the Estuary province began to think of themselves as Gabonese. At that time, rural people with no French education were not considered Gabonese. A national identity began to spread slowly, and today the population as a whole identifies as Gabonese.
Evidence of strong French cultural and political influence originating in the colonial era can still be found throughout Gabon. French is Gabonís official language. Gabon is home to 10 distinct Bantu language groups, further divided into 50 regional varieties, In many cases, speakers of one variety do not understand other varieties. French serves as a means for members of these different groups to communicate with each other. French fluency and familiarity with French customs are status symbols. The Gabonese generally accept French expatriates and seek opportunities to work with French business interests. The Gabonese educational system is based on the French model. Most elite Gabonese attend university in France or other French-speaking countries. French advisers hold key government positions, and France has a military base on the outskirts of Libreville.
Relations between France and Gabon are excellent. An astute judge of French politics and politicians, Omar Bongo facilitated billions of dollars of French trade and investment in Gabon, including the notorious activities of the now-dissolved oil company Elf Aquitaine. He also secured for Gabon one of four French military bases in Africa and, from the outset of his rule, a guarantee of French support should his regime be challenged. Sometimes mislabeled a French puppet, Omar Bongo grew over time into a sophisticated partner in French diplomatic, military and business initiatives and an independent voice whose counsel was valued at the senior levels in Paris.
Gabon remains an important partner of France in Africa action plan for the implementation of a strategic partnership, signed in 2010, marked a renewal in our relationship, illustrated in particular by the entry into force in June 2014 of a new defense partnership agreement. The most recent visit to Paris of President Ali Bongo Ondimba was in September 2015. The Gabonese President was received at the Elysee Palace by the President of the Republic within the framework of a working visit.
With 850 troops based in Gabon, France would at minimum respond to any threat to the safety of the estimated 10,000 French citizens here. A new cooperation cell would work with the standby brigade of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS or CEEAC in French). Following on the April 2007 launch of French training for CEEAC forces, the news that France is strengthening institutional ties to CEEAC and upgrading representation in Gabon demonstrates that Paris has thought strategically about how to respond to new African Union peace and security directives. This occurs despite possible French discomfort about working with CEEAC, which included Rwanda.
France was thought to be re-evaluating its need for a Gabonese military base, and redefining its security cooperation with Gabon, consistent with a 2008 defense white paper. Gabon's prolonged courtship of the United States, and its more recent economic and military overtures to China, provide no comparable or counterbalancing security guarantees. And while Gabon did not expect interference in its succession process by neighboring states, a welter of overlapping ethnicities and political connections ensure that such interference cannot be ruled out.
The old politics of 'La Francafrique' cast an intricate, shadowy web of diplomacy and commerce that for decades kept African presidents in its former colonies, like the Bongos, in power in exchange for privileged deals for French companies.
The power and influence of the "Caciques" (big shots), the old guard of Bongo's PDG (Gabonese Democratic Party), date from the early years of the Gabonese Republic. Many Caciques maintain strong connections with France, and France is thought to share their opposition to the prospect of Ali Bongo's assumption of power (President Omar Bongo once told US Ambassador Walkley, "The French don't like my son").
Gabon's foreign minister convoked the diplomatic corps 06 March 2009 to deliver a scathing indictment of the French "media campaign" against President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, which the foreign minister said threatens to seriously damage relations with France. He noted bitterly that the campaign had been carried out in both public and private media, with no reaction from the French government. He added that the Gabonese Government has the "strong conviction" that there is collusion between French media and "certain actors with undeclared motives."
This campaign for the "destabilization" of Gabon, Toungui continued, had provoked his government's "profound indignation." The campaign had been carried out in both public and private media in France, Toungui said, and there had been "no reaction" from the French state. Toungui made no specific reference to the recent seizure of Bongo's accounts at two leading French banks. He did, however, lambaste those who believe that countries in different stages of development are "identical".
The remarks came less than 48 hours after Bongo returned from a month in Morocco, where his wife was in a military hospital, gravely ill. The French Ambassador sat stoically throughout the presentation and departed in haste. Omar Bongo's anger at France, and his belief that senior French officials were involved in the "media campaign" against him, were genuine. This is an attitude born of deep knowledge, and even deeper cynicism, about French politics.
Franco-Gabonese relations had appeared to be on the mend after President Sarkozy sacked development minister Jean-Marie Bockel in March 2008--in the aftermath of Bockel's criticism of Bongo and other long-term French African clients. That rapprochement, for now, was over. On June 8, 2009, President Omar Bongo died of cardiac arrest at a Spanish hospital in Barcelona, ushering in a new era in Gabonese politics.
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