The parallel crises in the CAR and neighbouring Congo have encouraged the new French Socialist government to press ahead with the promised rethink of its Africa policy, particularly with regard to defence issues. The CAR will be one of the countries most affected by the reforms, both because it is a strategic linchpin of French military operations in Africa and because it has often been treated as a private backyard, where Paris felt free to intervene in much the same way as US governments used to do in the small states of Central America. Under the former president, Francois Mitterrand, the Socialists, in spite of their left-wing credentials, did little to change this approach. But, since taking over the party leadership in the wake of his unexpectedly strong performance in the 1995 presidential election, Lionel Jospin has shifted party policy in a decisively reformist direction. Now, following the Socialists' surprise victory in the recent parliamentary elections, he is prime minister. The way he shapes France's future role in the CAR will have special significance because it was over this issue that he broke with the cross- party consensus in January this year, with blazing criticism of the frontal attack by French troops on the rebels in Bangui. France should not, he said, "combine interference with impotence".
--as a military base closes
Already the Socialists are reviewing France's military presence in Africa, with a view to making big forces cuts (see Political scene). At the beginning of August, the defence minister, Alain Richard, confirmed earlier leaks indicating the closure of one of the two French bases in the CAR at Bouar in the west of the country, where the presence of foreign troops has long been a source of local tension. The second base, in Bangui, will be scaled back, while a presence at the M'poko air base will be maintained. Reform of the political aspect of relations will be more difficult in the case of the CAR. The reformist pre- election programme drafted by the Socialist Party's Africa secretary, Guy Labertit, promises a "new partnership with the Africa of young democrats" and a break with the "politics of networks [reseaux] and clientelism", a specific reference to the system of personal contacts developed over decades by Jacques Foccart, the veteran Africa adviser to Gaullist presidents--including the current incumbent, Jacques Chirac--who died earlier this year. French relations with the CAR and Gabon have long been seen as epitomising the network system. In the CAR, however, France has faced the difficult choice of how far to go in supporting Mr Patasse, who has proved to be neither a successful economic manager nor a credible, consensus-building national leader, but who was nevertheless elected in conditions generally accepted as reasonably free and fair. Last year, the then right-wing government in Paris tried to support a reformist prime minister in the CAR, Jean-Paul Ngoupande, but he was elbowed aside by Mr Patasse. The Socialists' new line is unlikely to have much effect in the short term over such dilemmas. In the longer term, though, it may begin to change the climate, giving reassurance of more active French support to reformist democratic African leaders and distancing Paris from association with authoritarian strongmen or corrupt incompetents.