Gradual Resurgence of France as a Strategic Presence in Latin America and the CaribbeanBy: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sánchez and Research Associate Annie Hamel
- Chirac’s visit to Brazil confirms the South American nation’s rising global status
- Increased French influence goes hand in hand with a decline of Washington’s leverage in its own hemisphere
French President Jacques Chirac will be visiting Brazil on May 25, which has the potential of becoming a watershed meeting in the furtherance of enhanced relations between the two major regional powers as well as France’s emergent presence in the area. France, which for years has lacked a significant imprint on the hemisphere, now appears to be gradually returning and expanding its influence by improving its ties with Brazil and giving some priority to its own Caribbean basin territories. Chirac’s visit to Brazil comes after last October’s Paris meeting between French Prime Minister Dominique De Villepin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In the De Villepin-Chavez encounter, the two countries came forth with declarations about their countries’ blossoming relationship and their desire to seek even further cooperation “on all levels.” Since both Paris and Caracas have had strained links in the recent past to Washington (and regarding Venezuela, very contemporaneously), any increased cordiality between them could prove mettlesome for White House policymakers. According to Latin America specialist Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), France, for the most part, has only had marginal diplomatic connections to Latin America, as the was region no longer considered a “priority continent.” Chirac’s visit to Brazil and De Villepin’s meeting with Chávez are obvious signals of a renewed French interest in a constructive relationship with the Western Hemisphere, notwithstanding the duplicitous role played by De Villepin in facilitating the extra-constitutional ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004 – an event that was engineered by Roger Noriega, formerly of the State Department, and which included the French foreign minister, the U.N.’s Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Canadians.
One can be excused for minimizing the potential importance of France’s presence in the region. Although much of its newfound visibility in recent years occurred without fanfare, Paris, in fact, has been quietly strengthening its presence across the hemisphere, from its Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadalupe to Colombia and Brazil. Chirac’s Brasilia trip is likely to lay the foundations for greater French investment and diplomatic involvement in the area. The prospects for a greater French role will heavily depend on the result of the country’s presidential elections next year. It will also depend if De Villepin manages to win and continue his own as well as President Chirac’s controversial legacy, and whether he will not be too burdened by the former’s rather shameful relationship with Haiti as its Judas, at the time that President Aristide was using up his remaining hours on the island.
France & Latin America-Brazil, the Major Interest
The foundation of the new ties between France and Latin America is a growing commercial exchange. According to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after the 1980s economic slowdown, French exports to Latin America increased from 16.7 billion Francs in 1990 (1.5% of the country’s total exports) to 45 billion in 1998 (2.6% of the total exports). In 2001, Mexico occupied 15% of total trade between France and Latin America, while half of total trade was between France and MERCOSUR nations.
The Quai d’Orsay (France’s foreign relations ministry) has amply displayed its growing interest in emerging Latin American economies, offering new investment opportunities for Paris, with Brazil attracting particular attention. Today, the Portuguese-speaking giant is regarded as a rising power, comparable to India, hence Paris’ great interest to cultivate its interest. In an interview with COHA, M. Amblard, an official on Brazilian affairs at France’s ministry of foreign affairs, highlighted the historical ties between France and Brazil, referring to the Brazilians that sought refuge in France in 1964 in order to escape the (Marshall Humberto de Alencar Castelo) Branco military junta, as one component of the two countries’ bilateral ties. Mr. Kouliansky of IRIS described how, in order to improve relations between France and Brazil, the French government made 2005 the “year of Brazil,” in which 15 million people participated in widely attended national festivals. Brazilian President Lula even participated in the July 14 French national parade, an honor which is not lightly bestowed. In addition, several cooperative agreements between the two countries on different issues like commerce, education, and culture. As part of this renewed push, France corporations became the fourth largest investor in Brazil in 2005, and were responsible for the creation of 230.000 jobs. France’s international support for Brazil’s Zero Hunger Project, which Brasilia had presented to the United Nations as an example of how to bring development to a country strongly needing reform, shows that Paris’ commitment is stronger than simply self-gratifying rhetoric. France’s initiatives and support for Brazil have made Chirac’s upcoming visit an event which is being warmly awaited by Lula and his government as part of its political and economic diversification theme which the Palácio do Planalto means to stress.
On a business level, many French multinational enterprises have invested in Brazil among them Renault-Nissan and Casino-Carrefour. In a December 1997 Billboard magazine article, the CEO of French mega department store FNAC, Francois-Henri Pineault, announced his company’s plans for Latin America and Asia, noting “we already have teams in action and we plan to open stores in the next 12-18 months.” He went on to explain that “Europe will become our domestic market, but our international development will cover other continents.” Pinault was speaking almost prophetically since FNAC opened a store in Sao Paulo in 1999, providing just one illustration of how French companies are penetrating Latin American markets. An April 25 article in Brazil’s Investnews celebrates the country’s exports to France in the past year, which include Havaianas flip flops, chemicals, prepared foods, turbines, auto tires and leather shoes.
France has sought active engagement in Colombia, but more on the basis of political rather than economic motives. Several French citizens are currently held by Colombian rebel groups, a situation which has prompted Paris to seek the role of a mediator in order to expedite the release of the French nationals. It is unclear if French negotiators are currently involved in the present discussions between the Colombian government and the major rebel movement in the country, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), for the release of some of the latter’s victims.
Among the hostages that Paris is determined to liberate is the former Colombian presidential candidate and former congresswoman, Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held hostage since February 2002. Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, is the daughter of a former Colombian diplomat. Prime Minister De Villepin was Betancourt’s political science professor, and has made obtaining her release a pillar of his country’s Colombian policy as well as a matter of his personal dedication. In an April 21 press release, France’s foreign minister, M. Philippe Douste-Blaze, expressed France’s determination to secure her release. Earlier, in an 2006 interview, Douste-Blaze explained how, in coordination with Spain and Switzerland, Paris is trying to organize a round of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. He explained that France is committed to the respect of human rights and Colombia’s sovereignty, but has only one central objective: the liberation of all the hostages, particularly Ingrid Betancourt.
However, Quai d’Orsay seems to have maneuvered less than adeptly in seeking its goals, and Colombian officials are becoming agitated over Paris’ heavy handedness. An article in the French daily Le Figaro quotes a Colombian official as saying: “the French government has multiplied its errors in the Betancourt affair.” The official goes on to say “if [Paris] had reacted as it did for the French hostage in Iraq, [Betancourt] would already be freed.” Critiques of the French government’s approach seemed somewhat justified, especially after the body of Aida Duvalier, a Colombian-French hostage, was recovered in February in the town of Quinchia, west of Bogot. Duvalier had been kidnapped by the relatively unknown Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) in March 2001.
French Overseas Territories
France’s historic ties to the Western Hemisphere are bolstered by the country’s numerous possessions in the greater Caribbean region, known as “Departement d’Outre-Mer” (DOM or Overseas Departments). These include the islands of Guadelupe and Martinique, as well as French Guyana. These are not simply French territories, but since the 1980s have held the same legal standing as any other French mainland department like Loire or Manche, with their citizens having the same rights as other French citizens. Unlike British-controlled Bermuda, there is hardly any discussion about moving towards full independence in the French DOM. The inhabitants seem to enjoy the benefits of being legal French citizens, which – like Puerto Rico’s links to the U.S. – are not insubstantial. They enjoy unrestricted migration to France and the rest of Europe, as well as a steady flow of economic aid and subsidies from Paris and the European Union. However, not everything is made of gold; the lack of vital independence movements can also be partially explained by the well-grounded fear that would-be self determinants have of Paris’ traditionally repressive policies toward pro-independence civic movements. A 1997 Round Table journal article by Dr. Helen Hinjens, explains that Paris’ overall approach (particularly in the 1960s) towards pro-independence parties and movements in the DOM was repressive. Most were banned outright and, like their Algerian counterparts, their leaders were deported to mainland France under “special security circumstances.”
French Guyana and its neighbors
French Guyana, with its small population of 157.213 – according to a 1999 national census – holds particular importance for several reasons, principally its 673 km common border with Brazil. Currently, both French and Brazilian legislators are debating the construction of a 300-meter bridge over the Oyapock River, which separates the two territories, as well as giving permanent circulation entrance cards to the residents on both river banks, permitting them to cross freely. Associated migratory issues weigh heavily on relations between French Guyana and Brazil. In addition, the “gareimperos” (illegal Brazilian gold seekers) have begun prospecting mining operations in the rivers of French Guyana. Such incursions are envenomed by the gareimperos’ use of mercury in their refining efforts, which has a widespread baleful ecological impact. Among the most affected groups have been local indigenous communities, who not only experience health problems as a result of the exposure to the lethal metal, but are often subjected to threats of violence from criminal groups who run protection operations for the gareimperos. Moreover, according to the French organization Reporteurs sans frontières, journalists attempting to expose the region’s combative atmosphere have repeatedly faced deaths threats from illegal groups’ leaders.
Authorities in French Guyana have struggled to control the unlawful activities of these prospectors, particularly because of tremendous difficulties posed by the dense Amazonian forest. Last February, Brazil and Venezuela signed an accord to explore and exploit their quadrants of the border area, which covers more than 2,000 km. A January article in Mining Journal by Dominic Mercer explains that the propellant behind the accord includes the pollution brought about by the garimpeiros and the yet-to-be-determined quantity and quality of contraband diamonds and gold they have gathered. It is unclear if Chirac and Lula will get around to discussing this issue when they meet.
The multilateral facet
Elsewhere in the region, Paris has actively pursued multilateral engagement as an associate member of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), representing the DOM. The ACS, which was founded on July 24, 1994, has a broad membership including 25 full members, from both island and mainland Caribbean nations as well as three associate members (France, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles). The United States and the United Kingdom have observer status. France’s associate membership in the ACS might offer a privileged path towards displaying an enhanced presence in the region. Caribbean governments have been trying to lure Martinique and Guadalupe into playing a role in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), knowing full well that an opened French purse and a flow of investments would likely follow.
Several steps have already been taken to boost this incipient relationship. Last March, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt met with French DOM officials; the discussions ended in an agreement establishing that Dominica’s citizens would no longer require visas to travel to French Caribbean territories. Another significant development is Paris’ decision to donate a total of $126,000 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in support of the Commission’s efforts in Haiti.
On the subject of the region’s persistent crime problems, France has even opened a crime center in Martinique, the Centre interministériel de formation anti-drogues (CIFAD), in order to train regional police officers to combat drug trafficking. Another example is the recent 3-day March meeting in Paramaribo between Surinamese and French judicial authorities. According to the CMC news agency, the conference’s purpose was to “strengthen cooperation to deal with a wide range of cross – border criminal activities between Suriname and French Guyana.” The crimes brought up in the discussion included illegal immigration, auto theft, human trafficking, smuggled fuel as well as illegal small scale gold mining by the Brazilian garempeiros.
A Question of Interest
Links to Brazil, Colombia and the Caribbean typify France’s new engagement with Latin America; a policy which does not operate on a macro-scale, but rather by carefully selecting a sharp-shooter’s target, emphasizing a partnership based on particular circumstances. Often, the motivation is commercial; however in Colombia, it has been more political and humanitarian. A possible victory by Prime Minister De Villepin in the 2007 presidential race will likely mark a continuation of France’s current policy of strategic friendships throughout the Caribbean, with perhaps a greater French presence in Colombia in order to obtain Ingrid Betancourt’s freedom. Until then, President Chirac’s visit to Brazil constitutes an example that Latin America and the Caribbean can no longer be dismissed as being situated in Washington’s “sphere of influence.” After China, France is yet another country that, for strategic and financial reasons, and because of the region’s abundance of resources, is turning to Latin America and the Caribbean, regions that have opened their doors and are seeking to gain new friends and diversified trade partners.