Interview between the ambassador and Peter Fabricius (Pretoria News)
France advocates bigger UN role for SA
When a loose bolt broke a rotor in one of the reactors at the Koeberg nuclear power plant late in 2005, aggravating an already dire season of blackouts, France threw South Africa a lifeline that saved the government a lot more embarrassment.
Within days, a rotor was on its way to Cape Town, courtesy of an order directly from President Jacques Chirac to the French state energy utility EDF. Such was France’s commitment to SA, said Jacques Lapouge, the French ambassador in Pretoria, in a recent interview.
Of course, even though he does not say so, the rescue effort was also very good for French business. Not long after, the giant power company Alstom, which had constructed the rotor which was rushed to Koeberg, won a R13 billion contract to construct the turbines for the new coal-fired power station Kusile and then another later for the Medupi station.
And the French nuclear power plant maker Areva, which built the Koeberg reactors, has been shortlisted with one other company to build 11 more nuclear power plants for Eskom, at an eventual estimated cost of over a trillion rands.
Eskom shelved its planned nuclear power plant expansion in 2008 when the recession hit, but is expected to revive it when the economy turns. Nevetheless, Lapouge insists that all of this is not just about business. The Koeberg project entailed the transfer not only of goods but also of people, technology and training from France to South Africa, helping to build a local nuclear power industry.
"When you have huge projects it impacts on the partnership so economic exchanges which are not pure trade also have a strategic dimension. This is what I call a strategic partnership. "I am reluctant to use that expression because it is over-used. But regarding the relationship between SA and France, it is the best phrase."
Lapouge says President Nicolas Sarkozy wants strategic partnerships with key countries, and South Africa, as sub-Saharan Africa’s only emerging power, is one of those, along with other nations like Brazil, India and Mexico. Sarkozy and President Thabo Mbeki launched the SA-French strategic partnership on the French President’s state visit to South Africa in 2008.
The "strategic partnership" covers everything in the relationship, Lapouge says, including also France’s e400 million R3.9 billion) a year in development aid, (mostly loans) to SA, the biggest single recipient of French aid. This helps to build houses and give access to energy for the poor, to combat HIV/Aids, to protect the environment, to improve the efficiency of the police, etc.
Another important aspect of the strategic partnership is collaboration on international issues, for example when Sarkozy drummed up support for an interim Copenhagen climate change summit deal from Zuma, among other leaders, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago last November.
Lapouge is of course delighted that SA’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) has decreed that all new cadet diplomats must learn French. As most Africans speak French before English, and French is an official United Nations language, learning it is a necessary part of SA’s expanding African and international engagement, he says.
And France trying to amplify SA’s voice in the world is yet another dimension of the strategic partnership. France strongly supports enlarging the number of UN Security Council permanent seats to include Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and an African presence, says Lapouge. Though France does not want to interfere in the AU’s decision on which countries should represent Africa, he also notes that Sarkozy has said that SA has the necessary qualities to be considered for a permanent seat.
Because the Security Council reform movement has been blocked for so long, France and Britain are now pushing for an interim category of seats which would not yet be permanent but would be longer term than the current two-year, non-permanent seats, and would be renewable, Lapouge explained.
If this promising experiment succeeded, UN members could decide to turn these new types of seats into permanent ones. "We are not doing it because we are altruistic but because we feel the world needs a credible Security Council, with all the big players there," he says.
The same is true of Sarkozy’s effort to expand the G8 group of the world’s major industrialised nations (plus Russia) to become a G13 or G14 to include the G5 group of significant emerging nations - China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa - which now meets the G8 countries as a separate group at every one of their annual summits, plus perhaps an Arab country such as Egypt.
Lapouge believes the G8 - and by implication its possible extensions, the G13 or G14 - are not obsolete, despite the recent promotion of the G20 group of industrialised and emerging nations (also including SA) to become the key grouping tasked with fixing the global economy.
He suggests the G8/G13/G14 will continue to play a role, but dealing mainly with non-economic issues such as climate change.
Lapouge disagrees with those commentators who have suggested that Zuma will be much less of a foreign policy president than Mbeki. He says he is impressed by the impact that SA has made on the international scene over the last few months, particularly at Copenhagen, and also commends SA for the "rare" feat of being nominated for a second term on the UN Security Council as SA was in January by the African Union.
And he is sure that the preparations for the World Cup are going well and that it will generate great publicity for SA.
"We really believe in the role of SA on the international stage and that’s why we want to develop the relationship."
Though not only France, but the West as a whole have had differences with SA at the UN on human rights issues, they have noted with interest that the Zuma administration seems to have toughened its international human rights positions slightly with two votes at the UN General Assembly which took a tougher line on human rights abuses by Burma (Myanmar) and Iran.
Another bone of contention has been Pretoria’s perception that Paris is still meddling - militarily and otherwise - in the affairs of its former African colonies to maintain its strategic and economic interests.
Lapouge noted that French President Francois Mitterand first signalled a shift away from this notorious post-colonial "Franceafrique" policy as early as 1990 in a speech at La Baule. He criticised this policy as just a new form of colonialism and promised that henceforth France’s aid to its old African colonies would be tied to democratic and human rights reforms.
And in his speech to a joint sitting of the SA Parliament in 2008, Sarkozy signalled another important step away from the old Africa policy, especially regarding security.
Sarkozy announced then that all of France’s defence agreements with former colonies would be renovated and made public, that Paris would close some of its military bases in Africa and would shift its focus towards supporting the AU’s own efforts to police the continent itself.
Lapouge said that since then new defence agreements had been signed with Togo and Cameroon and that negotiations with Gabon for a new agreement were nearly complete, while the five remaining agreements were at different stages of re-negotiation.
France has also closed its military base in Cote d’Ivoire and will shut its bases in Dakar, Senegal, leaving only one base on the Western seaboard in Gabon and another in the Horn of Africa in Djibouti.
While sceptics have noted that France is still wooing its traditional allies - citing Sarkozy’s third visit to Gabon in February this year - Lapouge says this is no contradiction. France is not scrapping its old friends, only "modernising" its African relations, by adding new allies, such as South Africa, to the old ones.
He notes that France’s three top trading partners in Africa are SA, Nigeria and Angola - none of them former French colonies - and that Gabon is only France’s 15th trading partner in Africa.