How France Lost Africa to the U.S.

Francophone African nations are shifting their cultural allegiance from their old colonial master to America, a process that will change both Africa and the West

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Ivorian refugees carry their possessions on their heads as they walk past a French army checkpoint on October 11, 2002. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

In the scandalous case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French IMF chief currently held in New York facing attempted rape charges, the powerful issues of race and gender easily overwhelm one curious geopolitical detail: what's a woman from a French-speaking, former French colony in West Africa doing in the U.S. in the first place? In this case, she is from Guinea, but she could just as likely be from Senegal, Cameroon, Rwanda, Gabon, or Benin -- all Francophone countries that once sent their most ambitious immigrants almost exclusively to France. Now these and other French-speaking African countries experience a steady outflow people to the U.S.

The presence of a growing number of French-speaking Africans reflects a monumental shift in the relationship of sub-Saharan Africa to France and to the U.S. The shift has been years in the making, and its still-unfolding consequences are dimly appreciated.

I first experienced directly France's loosening hold on its former French colonies on a lengthy visit to Cameroon in 2005. I went to report on the purchase by a U.S. company of the entire electricity system of Cameroon. French-trained technocrats -- all Cameroonian nationals -- were hired to manage the newly privatized system, which was the largest single employer in Cameroon. When I met Jean Bile, the chief executive officer, I found him fluent in English; so was his entire leadership team.

To be sure, Cameroon has an Anglophone zone in its Western region, which borders Nigeria. But the country's educated elite chiefly speak French. During my visit, Bile, who was educated at the Sorbonne, and his colleagues at AES Sonel, explained the various reasons why the best and brightest in Cameroon were turning to English. Partly the reason was pragmatic. For too long, France had exerted enormous economic dominance among its former colonies. Learning English gave the business class new access to the Anglophone capitalist world, and to American capital especially.

The pragmatism and openness of American capital differs sharply from France's more closed, status-oriented managerial culture. About the time that France experienced a wave of protests by African immigrants in 2005, I met with a group of university-educated black Africans living and working in Paris. All of them uniformly complained about racial bias and about limits on the potential of even highly talented to immigrants to advance up French corporate ladders. They showed little gratitude for the government of France having paid for their university educations, a practice meant to bind elites from Africa to French society. The contrast with America's embrace of talented immigrants -- and racial equality -- was impossible to ignore. In a 2009 study of Francophone Africans, Whitney R. Henderson of Providence College found similar reasons for their choice of the U.S. over France.

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G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism, and the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape and Married to Africa: A Love Story.

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