DAKAR (Reuters) - On the day of a vote to allow Congo Republic President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his 31 years in power, opposition leader Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas was under house arrest and eating canned food smuggled in by the French ambassador.
While Kolelas was grateful for the sustenance, his real hope was that the envoy, Jean-Pierre Vidon, would persuade Paris to stand up to its old central African ally and condemn the referendum he believes was illegal.
“France needs to take a stand,” Kolelas told Reuters during his 10-day detention by presidential guards. “If you are neutral in a case of injustice, then you are on the side of the oppressor.”
Kolelas says he faced no charges and was given no official explanation for his detention. A police spokesman said Kolelas had told young people to mount an “armed insurrection” and that his detention was necessary to restore order.
Paris is at pains to stress it has moved on from “Francafrique”, a term that describes how France played puppet master in its African ex-colonies decades after independence, offering protection for leaders in exchange for lucrative deals.
Yet commentators, including activists, opposition politicians and experts, say France’s muted reaction in Congo harks back to that era of incestuous ties and is typical of its double standards in Africa.
They say that in countries not deemed strategically important, France advocates democracy and constitutional rule and so willingly sent troops to Ivory Coast in 2011 to help swing a civil war in favor of President Alassane Ouattara, whose rival refused to step down after a free election.
But when it comes to speaking out against key allies, France stops short, even in the face of violence and blatant injustice.
“There are clearly double standards,” said Paul Melly, associate fellow in Chatham House’s Africa Programme.
“The problem France faces in central Africa is that the leaders who are stable, effective partners are the uncompromising veteran, strongman presidents.”
Paris initially defended Congo Republic’s 71-year-old President Sassou Nguesso’s “right to consult his own people” but later said it had no way of assessing the vote’s validity. The United States called the referendum “deeply flawed.”
Sassou Nguesso, in power for 31 of the past 36 years, won 94 percent of votes in a referendum on Oct. 25, allowing him to change the constitution so that he can seek a third consecutive term in 2016 polls. He is widely expected to win.
The opposition boycotted the vote after security forces opened fire on protesters in the run-up, killing at least four people.
“The Gallic cockerel has blessed Congo’s treachery,” quipped Burkina Faso’s daily l‘Observateur Paalga.
Asked why France had not spoken out on recent events in Congo Republic, French officials in Paris said France did not meddle in internal affairs and that African bodies should take the lead. Ambassador Vidon declined to comment.
The riverside marble mausoleum to French explorer Pierre de Brazza in Congo’s eponymous capital would be unthinkable elsewhere, but is meant to be symbol of the historical and modern-day ties between France and Congo Republic.
The tribute to a man who opened up the country to colonial exploitation cost more than $6 million and was erected here in 2006 with cash from France, Congo and another key French partner, Gabon.
Commercial ties form the backbone of the relationship. Oil major Total is the largest oil producer in Congo and France’s Bollore has agreed to invest more than 500 million euros ($540 million) in a deepwater port.
French trade with Africa was worth $69 billion in 2014, according to Standard Bank, the continent’s biggest European partner.
Security is also a top concern for Paris. This is the case in Chad, where France is unlikely to criticize President Idriss Deby next year when he is expected to seek a fifth term, having made the requisite legal changes with little fuss in 2005.
Chad, where France has a large military base, has played a major role in fighting Islamist fighters in the Sahara desert and Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.
Both Chad and Congo are deemed “not free” by U.S. democracy and rights group Freedom House.
“It’s clear Deby is not the biggest democrat, but nobody cares in light of what happened,” said a French diplomat, referring to Chad’s military efforts.
Dr. Berny Sebe, a lecturer in post-colonial studies at University of Birmingham, says “unfailing support” for African governments could be detrimental to France’s interests there.
In Burkina Faso, where crowds ousted leader Blaise Compaore a year ago as he sought to extend his 27-year rule, France said it had privately pressured him to renounce his plans.
But some feel French forces based there should have done more to protect them from army violence in 2014 and during a short-lived coup in September. At least 20 civilians have been killed since unrest began.
“If jihadists had committed the same acts as the presidential guard, would France have remained passive? We think not,” said Guy Herve Kam, from civil society group Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom).
By contrast, the U.S. ambassador became an instant hero for assuring crowds months before the planned referendum: “There will be no lenga”, using the local Mossi word for “extension”.
In Congo, Hollande could undo the impact of his “mealy-mouthed” remarks on the vote by defending candidates’ rights to campaign openly in 2016, Chatham House’s Melly said.
But leaders like Kolelas are not counting on much support from France.
“We can only rely on ourselves, hoping that France will wake up,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nadoun Coulibaly in Ouagadougou, Marine Pennetier and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Joe Bavier and Raissa Kasolowsky