France in Centrafrique

An interesting project landed in my lap a few months ago. My publisher, Chris Cocks of 30° South Publishing in Johannesburg asked me if I would be interested in providing the copy for a pictorial account of Frances military relationship with the Central African Republic. What I knew about the country was fairly limited – it had been at one time the home to Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa, one of the most notorious of the lunatic fringe of African demagoguery – but besides that only that it was one of least known of all the struggling, under developed and hopeless of Africa’s numerous basket case economies.

Another notable gap in my knowledge of Africa had also been the structure and history of French colonial expansion in Africa, which is a failing bearing in mind that, second only to the British, the French were the largest and most influential of all the European powers with an interest in Africa during the 19th century.

Any scholar of African history will know more or less why the Europeans plunged into Africa quite as they did during the last decades of the 1800s. The general partition of the continent found the British dominant in the south and east and the French paramount in north, west and central Africa.

The British tended on the whole to structure their colonial possessions without a great deal of thought applied to how the black/white race issue would play out in the future, and in doing so offered very little scope within their various colonial administrations for black advancement. The French, on the other hand, opened up much of the middle ground to black occupation, allowing such early African genius as Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor and Ivorian Félix Houphouët-Boigny to develop and achieve influence.

World War II had a far more dramatic effect on the French colonial empire than it did on the British. The French were effectively occupied, and when the Vichy Government assumed what authority it had in France, the Free French movement under General Charles de Gaulle found its home, and much of its leadership and manpower, in Francophone Africa. After the war the French were able to retain their overseas interests largely because France had maintained its imperial standing thanks entirely to Africa. Thus, as the process of decolonisation began in the 1950s and 1960s, the French approach was aimed very much at maintaining French influence in the region as a means of confirming France as an important and influential global power amid a changing international political dynamic.

This book, notwithstanding its coverage of a lot of these details, dwells mainly on the French military relationship with its erstwhile colonies in the region, and in particular that of the Central African Republic. It traces the rise of Jean Bokassa as a soldier with the Free French to a military commander within his own country, until finally his complete departure from reality with the creation of the Central African Empire. It explores the complexity of Franco/African military relations, the slow but inexorable decline of the Central African Republic, and the intensity of international efforts to divert it from its journey towards hopelessness.

I found the writing of the book absolutely fascinating. It is a richly illustrated account of one of the most enduringly typically of African historical journeys, and I would welcome any feedback. The book is available through the usual sources, and is a joint publication by 30° South and Helion Press in the UK.

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