Fears in the conservative governments of French-speaking Africa and hopes of political dissidents in those same countries that Paris would sharply alter its traditional, business-oriented relations with Africa have evaporated with the sudden ouster from the French Cabinet of Jean-Pierre Cot.
Until last month, Cot served as President Francois Mitterrand's minister of cooperation, a post that traditionally handled key economic relationships with former French colonies.
In that post, Cot had repeatedly pressed for what some of his advisers called a "less mercenary" French attitude toward black Africa, and a harder line on the white-minority government of South Africa. Cot's close relationship with Michel Rocard, who challenged Mitterrand for the Socialist nomination in 1981 and who lost after antagonizing Mitterrand, was almost certainly a factor in Cot's fall from office.
But in this resource-rich West African nation, the ouster is seen as the final blow to the "idealists" who wanted to move France's African policy in new directions.
Cot was the idealists' point man as head of the Ministry of Cooperation that dispenses developmental and military aid to Africa. He and other supporters of a publication that preceded Mitterrand's May 1981 election--called Projet Africain--insisted that a Socialist government pull back from what they described as militarily interventionist and manipulative policies of previous administrations.
The public battling between the idealists and more tradition-minded Socialists led to widespread perplexity in former French Africa over just what Mitterrand's African policy was.
"For months there was nothing but confusion as to who spoke for French policy on Africa," said a knowledgeable Western diplomat: The External Affairs Ministry, "the Socialist Party, the Ministry of Cooperation and the Elysee were all saying something different.
"It seems clear now that all policy is coming from the Elysee," where Guy Penne holds sway, the diplomat added. Penne, an ex-dentist and Socialist Party activist, came to the top advisory post in the presidential palace after getting out the overseas vote for Mitterrand in the 1981 campaign.
The president thus broke a tradition of filling the post with ex-intelligence operatives or diplomats with networks in Africa.
Yet Mitterrand has harked back to his predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in finding a family member to serve as Penne's deputy. The president's son, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, until recently an Agence France-Presse correspondent in Lome, Togo, was photographed in a jovial tete-a-tete with Togo's dictator, Gnassingbe Eyadema. The two were delegates to the October Francophone conference in Zaire.
Giscard had employed a brother and cousin for work with Africa, where traditional leaders have tended to rely more on familial than diplomatic ties to pursue their interests.
In the same photograph of Jean-Christophe and Eyadema was Mitterrand himself, as delegation leader, and adviser Penne, as well as Gen. Andre Kolingba, the Central African Republic's ruler. Kolingba earlier overthrew David Dacko, who was widely considered Giscard's handpicked president.
"Guy Penne and the other [Socialist Party] realists have clearly won their fight with the idealists," opined a western diplomat with long service in French-speaking Africa.
In Mitterrand's first year, he had angered Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, by shifting the annual Francophone conference from Kinshasa to Paris. But in 1982, the French traveled to Mobutu's capital for the session.
And in the summer months before Dacko's September 1981 overthrow, the Mitterrand government had unsettled Gabonese President Omar Bongo here by insisting on replacing his personal choice of French Ambassador Maurice Robert. That former intelligence agent, according to diplomatic sources, was instrumental in setting up Bongo's efficient presidential and domestic security services in the mid-1960s.
But after these early moves, the idealists ran into stiff opposition from the more conservative Socialists such as Penne, who is said to have felt that such actions could end up threatening France's interests in both countries while also sending negative signals to other French-speaking black African heads of state.
The French government's oil company, ELF, earns large profits from its 86 percent share of Gabon's 150,000-barrel-a-day production. The French also have major shares in uranium and manganese mining.
In Zaire, since Giscard's term in office, French officers have trained and commanded a Zairian paratroop battalion. French businesses have extensive interests there, including in the country's rich copper and cobalt mineral deposits.
Part of the idealists' efforts might have begun to unravel as early as mid-1981. Bongo was then the first black African head of state received by President Reagan. French oil interests, already upset about recent inroads made by Amoco into their heretofore virtual monopoly in Gabon's offshore fields, began to clamor at the Elysee about not alienating Bongo for the sake of principles, said a diplomatic source.
Last August, Mitterrand's government sent its second ambassador, Pierre Dabezies, to Gabon in little more than a year. Dabezies is a former paratrooper, at one time head of an elite assault commando unit called the Onzieme Choc. He taught military strategy at the Sorbonne and is a Gaullist leftist who supported Mitterrand.
As one of "the old boys," Dabezies is reported to get on well with the ex-French foreign legionnaires and intelligence operatives who are some of Bongo's closest advisers.
Among about 100 dissidents jailed here is a group that had openly challenged Bongo's rule with the expectation that the French idealists would rush to its support. Aid was not forthcoming.
"There was uncertainty between Bongo's government and Mitterrand's at the outset" of the Socialist administration "but Mitterrand's government has since gone back to business as usual and the ties today remain as strong as they were in the past," said a western diplomat.
At last October's Franco-African summit in Kinshasa, a highlight of the conference was an excursion by Mitterrand and Mobutu on Mobutu's yacht.