The Remains of the Day

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The Remains of the Day

Pin-insights

The strategic locations of small territories under the flag of second-tier countries, such as France or the United Kingdom, should not be discounted

The history of these former colonial empires has, for better or for worse, taken on a weight of its own, attested by language, education and subtly meshed cultures

None of this can be valued in US dollars or, for that matter, in Chinese yuans

But to make the best of their unique advantage, France, the focus of our note, has to take a long view and to show a willingness to fine-tune - or reconsider - deeply held national values

Or else...ultimately pay a heavy price, a loss of influence in geopolitical confrontations

 

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The Remains of the Day, a novel of thwarted life

Winner of the 1989 Booker prize, Kazuo Ishiguro’s master piece is a story about regret

credit Anthony Hopkins in the film adaptation of Remains of the Day

The quiet desperation pervading the life of Mr. Stevens, chief of staff at an English stately home, is as personal as our theme is global in its embrace, as strategic opportunities come … and go

But still… The Remains of Colonial Days are not that far from Stevens’ private agonies … and worth pondering

 

Search for fresh opportunities

Of the Colonial Empires assembled by hook or by crook over the 19th century by European powers, the remaining French ‘postage stamp’ holdings, left over from the great undoing of colonialism since the 1950’s, are not that different from today’s smattering of British territories across the world

But in an age where hyper-power is projected around the world by a very small band of dominant nations, the US over many decades and China following suit, the Remains of France’s Colonial Days retain the forlorn sense of missed – and possibly – relinquished opportunities

To the casual observer, France’s light footprint is hardly different from Great Britain’s shadow cast across the world, as both former leading powers have to confront – and adjust – to the reality of forced subservience

In more than one sense, with all the nuance strong-armed by history, a search for fresh opportunities in France’s ultra-marine territories could be viewed as a blue print for second-tier countries in a world of swaggering upstarts

Upstarts have been running rings around the European colonial empires – the US showing the way as World War II left France and the United Kingdom struggling with the complex and often painful process of decolonization

credit US military bases abroad 2015 CNN  March 9, 2019

And China’s breathless foreign engagement, engineered with lightning speed as ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), has struck Western imagination by the sheer magnitude of its ambition of circling the world with vast infrastructure projects and by its sudden emergence on the geopolitical scene

credit Council on Foreign Relations May 21, 2019

 

A matter of optics

If the deployment of military force by the US and of economic and financial initiative by China seems to leave France (and the United Kingdom) in the dust as bit players, this may just conceivably only be a matter of optics

Without the need (or the means) to deploy military force across its territories, the fact is that France’s ‘crumbs of Empire’ are remarkably distributed across the world

From the Canadian coast (Saint Pierre et Miquelon) to the Caribbean (Guadeloupe and Martinique) to the northern rim of South America (French Guiana) to the Indian Ocean (Réunion, Mayotte, Southern & Antartic Lands) to the Pacific (New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia), it remains true that the sun never sets on French territory...

credit Maps of  World

Of equal significance in an age of ‘soft power’ promoted by China with its BRI, the French administration has endeavored to align its territories with the rights and social benefits of the home country

A centralized State would not have it any other way and, although calls for better benefits or better opportunities surge periodically, there is little doubt that France’s ‘soft power’ is a winning strategy in the territories, hands down

Given the favorable layout of French territories, it will be surprising for an outsider that relatively little is made of this mid-tier country’s outsized influence in geopolitical terms

We will argue that France – if not its diplomats and its military – but probably the vast majority of the French themselves – are stuck in a purely ‘national’ frame of mind, dispensing French ‘largesse’, applying French reasoning to local issues and happily maintaining a statute of dependence

A costly mistake indeed...

 

Djibouti - from Côte française des Somalis (1896) to République de Djibouti (1977)

Image result for timbre poste djibouti republique française image
The struggle of Djibouti for independence, achieved in 1977 after more than 10 years of bitter divisions within the local population, could, with caution and awareness of very different contexts, be an early warning of France’s awkward post-colonial postures

The strategic value of Djibouti, ideally located on the Gulf of Aden, was recognized even before the Suez Canal broke ground, encouraging the French to ‘deal’ with local tribes in 1862, and installing a base facing the British positioned in Aden (today’s Yemen) across the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb

credit forexlive.com

Fast forward in 2019, the Republic of Djibouti is a failed state, described by the United Nations as a ‘Least Developed Country’ (LDC), eager recipient China’s BRI finances and today’s basket case of the Chinese debt-trap

With a nominal GDP of roughly $2bn, the country has seen its public debt soar from 50 per cent of GDP in 2014 to nearly 98 per cent of GDP three years later. According to the IMF, more than three-quarters of Djibouti's public enterprise external debt in 2016 came from the Export-Import Bank of China under commercial terms, rather than low interest rate concessions

One may conclude that the French timing – in 1976-1977 – was ill-conceived and, although holding on to a military base, France shares this benefit with an American base and a gleaming new Chinese base

The end game looks dismal, however much local conflicts in the Horn of Africa may have weighed

 

But we prefer to pay attention to the difficult questions of causation, long in the making

With a focus on some of France’s more fragile territories in the Comores, in New Caledonia and in French Guiana, we hope to draw some positive conclusions in our follow-up report