For over 30 years, the charismatic, larger-than life lawyer Robert Bourgi has been an often explosive catalyst in Franco-African relations. In 2011 interview, Bourgi blew the lid on the Françafrique political culture, where bribery and cronyism went hand in hand with political destabilisation and dirty money. In this interview in Paris with Junior Ouattara, from New African’s French edition, Bourgi dishes the dirt again.
You describe Jacques Foccart – [the late chief adviser in 3 previous government of France on African policy and said to havemasterminded clandestine military coups in French-speaking Africa] – as “an exceptional teacher who taught me many things”. Do you see yourself as his successor?
To begin with, Jacques Foccart was one of my father’s friends. They met in 1947 in Senegal, when Charles de Gaulle’s Rally of the French People party was first founded. I was a kid when I first met Foccart. I was very close to him, and I’ve always aimed to carry on his legacy. I am proud and honoured to have been by his side, but to say that I’m his successor would be a bit presumptuous. Nonetheless, I use what he did and what he inspired as a guide for myself.
Foccart certainly got stuck in, and had the blood of those Africans who resisted the system on his hands. Is this also a legacy you want to carry on?
Absolutely not! I’d say it’s going a bit far to even ask me that! I’ve never been involved in any immoral activity whatsoever. Obviously if Jacques Foccart was behind any difficult acts, he would have always felt that he was working in the interest of France. He even said: “For France’s sake, I’ d deal with the devil himself.” However, I would unequivocally condemn the assassination of a political opponent.
You’re rooted in two cultures – French and Senegalese – and that’s without even mentioning your Lebanese side. For which country’s sake do you work?
Having worked with Jacques Foccart, having been a member of Jacques Chirac’s RPR party and his advisor on African affairs, and having been a member of the cabinet at the time when Chirac was Prime Minister and Mitterrand was the President, it goes without saying that I acted in France’s interests. However, let me be very clear, I was nothing compared to the giants in French politics at the time.
Are you being modest?
No, but really. What was I compared to Jacques Foccart, Jacques Chirac and others? Of course I always gave my view of the truth, which was in support of Africa. I was born and raised in Dakar, where I lived through primary school, secondary school, college and the first two years of university. I feel African just as much as I feel French and Lebanese. It’s a mix of all three cultures. Nonetheless, I won’t deny that my political efforts in recent years have been primarily defending the interests of Africa and protecting those who oppose the many dictatorial regimes in Africa. The older I get, the more African I feel.
The term ‘briefcase carrier’ is sometimes used to describe the way you conducted business on behalf of African presidents in France.
I categorically reject the label ‘briefcase carrier’. I’ve never carried even a cent. I always accompanied envoys sent by African heads of state, who carried cash in a diplomatic briefcase or some other container.
For example, some head of state would call me and say, “Robert, could you arrange a meeting between this envoy and that French politician? He’ll have some things to give them in order to further the political actions of such and such a party”.
There was a code for all this. The head of state calls me and asks me to arrange an appointment for his envoy with a French politician, making it clear to me that the envoy had ‘something’ to hand over.
And by ‘something’, do you mean money?
That’s exactly what I mean. I’d call the French politician and say to him, “Could you grant a meeting for such and such an envoy from such and such a country?”
The head of state would then send his envoy, who I’d receive in my office rather than in an embassy. The envoy would come with money in a diplomatic car, and then we’d go to the Elysée Palace or the Quai d’Orsay or the Hotel Matignon or Place Beauvau or the Justice Ministry, and the envoy would hand over the suitcase, and that’s it! But I never carried a single briefcase.
How much money do you believe was in those briefcases?
More than $20m.
Can you imagine the opposite? Some French politicians asking you to intercede with an African head of state in exchange for money?
That happens too! It’s happened a number of times. Some French politician or another – I won’t name any names – would say to me, “Robert, the presidential or parliamentary elections are coming up, and it would be wonderful if such and such a head of state could help us,” even though France has been financially supporting political parties for a couple of decades.
For how long have you been immersed in Françafrique?
It was around long before I was. Mitterrand’s executor said the same in his memoirs. I don’t think that it could have existed during de Gaulle’s time, rather I suspect that it started during the Pompidou years in the 1970s.
And when did it start for you?
In the 80s. It was around the end of Giscard’s presidency and the start of the Mitterrand and Chirac era.
You’ve referred to Gabonese President Omar Bongo as “Papa”, and the Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny was known to call you “my little one”. Were you a sort of supporter to them?
I admired these two men for their political and intellectual stature. I was truly happy, proud and honoured to have met with President Houphouët-Boigny, to have dined at his home, to have heard him make speeches and talk, it was astounding.
I was close to Omar Bongo for 30 years. We were in Africa together for a number of years, and over time we went from “Mr President, sir” to “President”, and then he told me, “Son, just call me ‘papa’, that’s fine”.
Definitely keep in mind that Charles de Gaulle himself spoke very admiringly of HouphouëtBoigny, talking about his “first-rate mind for politics” in his memoirs. That’s quite a compliment.
You were very close to Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. It was more than just open camaraderie that linked you to these figures. This closeness could well fuel some speculation.
The majority of political parties in France received money. On the show Closer Investigation on the [main French] network, an ex-director of the Ministry for Cooperation said outright that politicians of all stripes came to visit African heads of state in their hotel to receive envelopes filled with money.
Yes, but what about Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin, Nicolas Sarkozy and so on?
In September 2011, I said that Jacques Chirac, Villepin and many others had received and accepted brown envelopes. As soon as you accept money illegally, it becomes dirty money.
You say “I like Nicolas Sarkozy”. But it was Sarkozy, as French President, who helped bring about the downfall and assassination of Gaddafi.
I’ll be very frank with you. Back when Bernard-Henri Lévy was persuading Sarkozy to go to war with the Gaddafi regime, I was strongly opposed to the action in Libya. On top of that, the Chairman of the African Union, Jean Ping, and African heads of state had told Sarkozy that they were against it. Although he got the UN resolution and support from the US and the UK, I still believe that the action taken against Gaddafi is a blot on Sarkozy’s copybook.
Just look what happened – all of the weapons held by AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and other terrorists come from the Libyan military arsenal.
You claim that the current French President, Emmanuel Macron, botched his visit to Ouagadougou, because “ he gave me the impression that he doesn’t know a thing about African society”.
I said that it was misguided of him to address President Roch Kaboré as he did. He was mistaken in trying to intervene in African society using Western ideas.
For example, talking about women, he said that they should have two children. But in Africa, it’s seen as the white man meddling in questions of society. Things like this are almost sacrosanct, they’re part of traditional African society, dating back centuries.
With that said, I don’t regret voting for him in both rounds of the presidential election, as I feel that President Macron has brought a new spark to French politics. Lastly, it’s a good thing that he was elected – he’s shown up practically the whole French political class as being outdated, starting with my political family on the Right.
Is Françafrique dead and buried?
Far from it, it’s as healthy as it’s ever been! Just look at the immense French military presence in Africa! What are French soldiers doing in Central Africa? Have they calmed things down? No! Things are even worse!
With the current state of AfricaFrance relations, are you really considering retiring? Can you, even?
I’ve taken my foot off the gas a little. After all, I’m 72; my health isn’t up to it any more. But I still hear Africa calling me. Recently, I spoke at length with an African head of state. I said to him, “Mr President, it is an honour”, and he said, “You call me president, but you’ve known me since back when I was a young minister”. He then added: “You must never retire, we won’t let you retire. We need you.”
For my part, I have a deep love for Africa. It’s in my blood, and the blood of my children, and Africa has given me everything I have. That’s where I will spend my last days, and where I will be laid to rest, in the cemetery at Dakar.
Robert Bourgi was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1945, into a wealthy Senegalese-Lebanese dynasty. He studied law in Nice and Paris and obtained a PhD in political science, with his thesis on De Gaulle and Africa. Although he obtained a licence as a lawyer, he has never practised as one.
Instead, he immersed himself in politics. Jacques Foccart, the hugely influential advisor on African policy to various French leaders, starting with De Gaulle, took Bourgi under his wing. Foccart initiated the term ‘Françafrique’ to denote the intimate collusion between the French state and Francophone African leaders, whereby they clandestinely, or even illegally, worked in each other’s interests. This included staging coups in various African countries.
As Foccart’s disciple, Bourgi cultivated very close relationships with Gabon’s President Omar Bongo, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Côte d’Ivoire’s President Laurent Gbagbo, among others.