France and Guinea Rapprochement (1963)


Victor D. Du Bois
Thaw In The Tropics.
France and Guinea Move Toward a Rapprochement

American Universities Field Staff Reports. West Africa Series
Vol. VI No. 2 (Guinea), pp. 1-12

February 1963

Victor David Du Bois (1932-1983)

When Guinea became independent, few people suspected how traumatic the break with France would be. Although General de Gaulle had warned Guineans that a negative vote in the referendum would mean that they would have to make their own way, it was commonly believed that some sort of entente would be worked out between the two nations once the passions aroused by the referendum had abated. But the situation never turned out that way. From the beginning, relations were bitter. The bitterness emanated from:

  • France’s refusal to accept, and accept gracefully, Guinea’ s new
    status as an independent nation
  • Guinea’s determination to use its newly won sovereignty as a springboard for destroying French influence in Africa.

Reconciliation between President Sékou Touré of Guinea and President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, October 1962. {Picture probably taken in Nzerekore, the main town and first stop on the way to Conakry. Governor Mory Keita is standing behind the two presidents. (T.S. Bah)

The first signs of hostility came from the French side. In a terse communique transmitted September 28, 1958, to Prime Minister President of the Council of government Sékou Touré and to his council of ministers by Jean Risterucci, special representative of the French government, France recognized de facto (but not de jure) the independence of its former territory 1. It was announced that financial credits to Guinea were suspended immediately; that all development projects then pending under the French aid agency, F.I.D. E . S. (Fonds d’Investissement pour le Développement Economique et Social) were canceled, and that Guinea, as it did not belong to the Community, no longer would be eligible to receive the administrative help of the French state.

See also A. Lewin “Les difficiles lendemains du référendum” (T.S. Bah)

Determined not to reward Guinea for staying out of the Community, France resolved to blockade the country economically and isolate it politically. General de Gaulle would not allow Guinea to enter the Community as an associated state though the Guineans made overtures to do this 2, and the Community’s Constitution specifically provided for this type of affiliation under provisions of Article 88 3.

President Touré’s persistent efforts to secure de jure recognition of his government from France proved futile as time after time the French government either ignored his telegrams or responded to them in an evasive manner. When the French government did reply to the President of Guinea, it did so in as condescending and casual a manner as possible, often addressing its replies to him in the form of communiqués typed on stationery bearing no official letterhead and delivered to him by a minor official of the French Embassy in Conakry.

France’s refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to Guinea, its withdrawal of administrative personnel from the country within two
months after Guinea’s independence, and its suspension of all further assistance to the country made it imperative for the new republic to seek aid elsewhere. The hesitancy of the Western powers to come to Guinea’s aid during those first critical days for fear of incurring the wrath of President de Gaulle, made its inclination toward the Eastern bloc a foregone conclusion. Armed with a £10 million loan from Ghana, a $35 million credit line from the Soviet Union, and several barter agreements signed with various Eastern bloc nations, the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (P.D.G.) and the government of Guinea felt sufficiently strong to begin a systematic campaign to destroy French influence in Guinea
and to undermine it wherever else possible.

Conakry, 1963. “La Voix de la Révolution” – Headquarters and radio broadcasting station

Within Guinea the task seemed simple. Since what was French was
also by definition colonial, to find a Guinean substitute for the one automatically implied the destruction of the other. When applied to the ornamental vestiges of colonialism —as in the removal of statues of French governors, the renaming of city streets and squares, and the re-designation of public buildings— this formula proved easy enough. French influence in the country could be visibly and dramatically reduced almost from day to day. Much more difficult was the application of this rule to individual Guineans, for they were less susceptible to the sweeping changes which the party envisaged. Many among them still retained a strong affection for the former mère-patrie of which their country had been a part for over 60 years. This was particularly the case with members of the nation’s elite-the government functionaries, intellectuals, students, and senior party officials—among whom the commitment to French language and culture was strong. It is to the credit of these people that even during those early days of independence, when their country was treated so rudely by the former mother country, many among them continued to make a distinction between “colonialist” France and what they called the “real” France. They held a similar attitude toward General de Gaulle. Responsible though he was for much of Guinea’s plight, he was rarely attacked personally. He remained for the Guineans, as he did for other Africans, “the man of Brazzaville,” French Black Africa’s liberator. Guineans decried France’s efforts to suppress the independence movement in Algeria. They bitterly attacked the odious aspects of French colonial policy. Yet curiously, ironically, they recalled that alone among the colonial powers, France had allowed Negroes to sit in the highest councils of government. Paris belonged as much to them as it did to the French.
The ambivalence of the relationship was no less marked on the
French side. There were many Frenchmen, of course, who belittled
Guinea’s accession to independence, and to these the slow, sometimes stumbling efforts of the young republic to get on its feet were proof enough of the futility of it all. In Conakry’s shabby bistros Guinea became the butt of their jokes. Caring nothing about the country, they spoke freely and derisively (though usually only to one another) about it.
But there were also other Frenchmen, who for reasons best understood by themselves, threw in their lot with the young nation and worked earnestly in its behalf. Their reasons were as diverse as their individual personalities. For some, the motive was unquestionably private gain; for others, it was nothing more than an idealistic desire to help Guinea. Their lot was not always an easy one. To the more chauvinistic of their compatriots they were regarded as little better than traitors —people who had sold themselves to the enemies of France. Some, such as Professor Jean Suret-Canale, the French scholar who was head of the Lycée Donka, were made to suffer the consequence of their choice through deprivation of civil and professional rights at home. Yet through these people a valuable link was retained with the Métropole. By their presence and through their endeavors the belief that there was a France other than colonialist France and that there were Frenchmen other than colonialist Frenchmen became a reality for many Guineans.

Political parade down Conakry’s main street, 1963

Relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate all through the early months of 1960. Guinea’s sudden and unexpected withdrawal from the franc zone on March 1, 1960 4 and the severe restrictions on capital transactions which it promulgated as a follow-up measure, deepened the resentment against it of the resident French, who numbered some 8 ,000. In their bitterness against Guinea, few of them remembered the severe blow which their own country’s actions had dealt Guinea following its independence. The shoe was now on the other foot. Relations reached their lowest point in the period May-July 1960, when Touré and other members of the P.D.G. accused France of being behind an alleged plot to overthrow the Guinean government

See also:
(a) Ameillon, La Guinée dans l’orbite néo-colonialiste
(b) Lewin, Le “complot pro-français”
(c) LewinDes accords qui constituent une nouvelle chance…, mais en apparence seulement
(d) Lewin, Novembre 1965. La rupture avec la France est consommée
(e) Malinga, Ahmed Sékou Touré: An African Tragedy
(T.S. Bah)

Diatribes against France by government and party officials reached a crescendo. The French were accused of attempting to foment trouble in their former colony through agents working in Senegal and the the Ivory Coast. Such African leaders as Houphouët and Senghor who were still friendly to France were pilloried in the Guinean press as “agents of colonialism.” The Community was ridiculed as a paper shield designed to protect French interests and privileges in Africa. Guinea had declared a war of words against France.

For the French still resident in Guinea—especially those living in and around Conakry—the situation was extremely difficult. They were subject to constant harassment by the government and party which sought to make their lives as miserable and uncomfortable as possible.
Many were arrested arbitrarily by the police—the pretext, they were engaging in activities “offensive to the republic.” One among them, a pharmacist named Pierre Rossignol, was sentenced to 20 years at forced labor by a so-called “People’s Court” for allegedly having participated in the anti-government plot. All foreigners in the country, but most particularly Westerners, were under strong suspicion by government authorities and their activities were carefully watched.

Almost as quickly as it had started, the ferment caused by the so-called conspiracy began to subside. Life returned to normal and the fog of tension and suspicion which had enveloped the country began to lift. Frenchmen and Guineans once again treated each other with civility, if not exactly with cordiality.

Throughout the crisis of 1960, relations between the two countries were at a low ebb, but contact was never completely broken. The French still maintained their embassy in Conakry and the Guineans theirs in Paris. More Guinean students still were sent to France for their higher education than to any other single country. The French, perhaps realizing their last trump in Guinea was the “cultural card,” continued to supply Guinea with teachers for its primary and secondary schools. France maintained treasury officials in Conakry to keep careful record of the amounts owed Guinean veterans who had served in the French armed services. The Guinean government meanwhile continued to allow French newspapers to be circulated in the country.

These acts notwithstanding, the Guinean government went ahead forging new links aimed at dissociating Guinea from France and aligning it with nations either unsympathetic with or openly inimical to French interests in Africa. A union of sorts had already been formed with Ghana which Mali later joined to form a counterweight against the French Community. Through it Guinea hoped to woo other former French territories away from the influence of Paris. With the United Arab Republic (Egypt, Syria), Morocco, Ghana, and Mali, Guinea joined in forming the Casablanca Group, an organization of African states pledged to give direct aid to the rebels in Algeria and support to the government of Patrice Lumumba in the former Belgian Congo. At home, Guinea bound itself more firmly to the Eastern bloc, admitting hundreds of technicians to run its airway, hospitals, and port, and serve as advisers in various sectors of government. By mid-April, some 308 Guinean students were enrolled in Eastern bloc educational institutions.

France and Guinea inflicted considerable damage in their efforts to “teach” one another a lesson. Guinea suffered from the deprivation of financial and technical assistance which France was best equipped to give the new nation and which it sorely needed to realize its ambitious aims. France, on its part, seemed obliged to write off the $200 million its citizens had invested in the country as long as the quarrel with Guinea continued. De Gaulle succeeded in rallying and holding the leaders of the former French territories on his side, but Sékou Touré carried the day with the youth of French Africa and it was to him that they looked for moral leadership of the continent. The obduracy, blind pride, and intransigence of both leaders, Charles de Gaulle and Sékou Touré, and their mutual suspicion of each other’s motives, prevented either from acknowledging his own degree of responsibility in the impasse that had developed between their countries and, as a consequence, little was done to improve their relations.

The naming of a French ambassador to Guinea in March 1961 was the first major sign of a thaw. The fact that France had waited more than two and a half years before officially recognizing Guinea did not detract from the importance of the event. For the Guineans it constituted a major victory signaling at last France’s acknowledgement of the sovereignty of their country. For a while, prospects of a genuine rapprochement seemed brighter than they had been at any time since independence.

Encouraged by this move, the hopeful in both countries began to speak about renewing the old friendship. The events of the summer of 1961 seemed to justify these hopes even further . In July a second Franco-Guinean cultural accord was signed 5, this one provided for France’s continuing to send French teachers to Guinea and for the exchange of students. The following month, in August, former French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France paid an informal visit to Guinea, accompanied by the French deputy François Mitterand and Jean Mauberna, the last French governor to serve in Guinea.

See also (a) François Mitterand’s “Sékou Touré m’a dit
(b) “Souvenirs”, récit de voyage d’André Bettencourt (T.S. Bah)

They were given a warm and cordial welcome by President Sékou Touré and his government. The French press at the time quoted the Guineans as saying, “We can resume talks with France. We will be able to speak as equals with a partner who has at last set his colonial affairs in order.”

But no sooner were these hopes on the horizon than they were rudely shattered by the events of the following months. In November (1961) the Guinean government seized the French-managed mining company, Bauxites du Midi. That same month, during an anti-government demonstration staged by students at the Lycée Donka, the P.D.G. alleged that there was being fomented in Guinea a new subversive campaign aimed at overthrowing the government. Although the principal blame was laid to dissatisfied elements of the teachers’ union who had been encouraged by “certain Eastern embassies,” Sékou Touré also accused the recently-arrived French Ambassador, Jean-Louis Pons, of having allowed subversive agents in Paris, Dakar , and Moscow to avail themselves of his diplomatic pouch to transmit secret instructions to counter-revolutionaries in Conakry. Members of the P.D.G., meeting at a party congress in Labé, called upon the government to sever diplomatic relations with Paris. The allegation, which brought a prompt denial from the French foreign ministry, threatened to destroy the modest progress that had been made toward improving relations between the two countries.

In January 1962 the Guineans dealt another blow to a possible reconciliation with the French when the government ordered the nationalization of all insurance companies in the republic. Of the 15 insurance companies then operating in the country 13, were French-owned. The following month the Guinean government decreed that, in the absence of a new convention between the two countries, the Conakry airfield no longer would be open to French aircraft. Relations once again tumbled to a new low; impasse seemed inevitable.

Then, in March 1962 a cease-fire in Algeria was unilaterally declared by the French forces fighting there. This event marked a turning point in Franco-Guinean relations. On March 19, speaking over Radio Conakry, President Touré declared:

“In view of the change of French policy in Algeria, the Government of the Republic of Guinea is modifying its line of conduct toward the French Government, and warmly wishes that in the future, its [i.e., the French Government’s] bilateral relations with the African states will be entered into in the direction of a real decolonization, a durable peace, and egalitarian co-operation.” 7 One week later, in an article entitled “General Satisfaction After the Cease-fire ,” the Agence Guinéenne de Presse declared: “More than ever, the door is open for better understanding between the French Government and militant and revolutionary Africa for a total decolonization. We remain firmly attached to the fundamental principles of our policy, and partisans to all collaboration undertaken within a framework of equal co-operation.” 8 A few days later, a new Franco-Guinean air accord was signed in Paris. In a gesture to demonstrate that it was serious about wishing to arrive at a rapprochement with France, the Guinean government, on April 1 , 1962 , released the French pharmacist Pierre Rossignol who had been imprisoned two years earlier. Shortly afterward, a delegation consisting of Keita Fodeba, Minister of National Defense, Ismael Touré, the President’s brother and Minister of Public Works, and Jean Farague, Minister of Youth, Arts, and Culture, flew to Paris hoping to see President de Gaulle and convey to him a special message from President Sékou Touré. De Gaulle, in no hurry to acknowledge the Guinean overtures, refused to receive the delegation. Tactfully, the Guineans did not press the issue. The delegation quietly returned to Conakry.

In September, however, General de Gaulle accorded an audience to Tibou Tounkara, Guinean Ambassador to France. The meeting is said to have been extremely cordial. It was agreed that a French diplomatic mission soon would go to Conakry to discuss settlement of outstanding questions. Two months later, in November, the French mission arrived in Conakry for a three-day round of talks with Guinean authorities, headed by Ismael Touré. What actually transpired at that meeting, or how much progress was made toward a settlement is difficult to determine as the only public declaration concerning the talks was a joint communiqué which stated merely that they had been held in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and that their results would be discussed by the two governments at the ministerial level.

During these months, while he was directing Guinea’s new overtures to France, Sékou Touré was also busily engaged in mending his home fences. The abandon with which he and his government had conducted Guinea’s foreign policy during the early days of independence, the vituperation which they had heaped upon other African leaders who had decided to cast their lot with the Community rather than follow his lead, had brought little gain. Indeed, such actions had turned many of the leaders of the other French-speaking states against him 9. Toure now sought to rectify this error and began earnestly to cultivate good relations with men whom he had once dismissed as so many colonialist puppets. In May he invited President Leopold Senghor and Prime Minister Mamadou Dia of Senegal to Guinea. Their visit was followed by that of President Diori Hamani of Niger in June. In October, Togo’s President, Sylvanus Olympio, and the Congo’ s President, Fulbert Youlou, were invited as honored guests to Guinea’s independence day ceremonies. But the greatest turnabout came with the brief visit in August of the man whom Toure had regarded as his bitterest rival, Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Houphouët returned to Guinea in October for an official tour of the country. At the end of this visit the two Presidents issued a joint communiqué saying that the “little clouds of misunderstanding” which once existed between their two nations now had been dissipated.

Such is the point at which Franco-Guinean relations stand at present. What are the chances of completing the rapprochement? Probably better than they have ever been. Both sides are trying to effect the long overdue reconciliation. The visitor to Guinea these days sees again something of the old camaraderie that was once common between Frenchmen and Guineans in pre-independence days. The new feeling of cordiality has even spread to the Métropole. Within the French National Assembly there has been formed a France-Guinea Friendship Group open to all deputies desirous of seeing the dispute settled between the two countries. Most significant of all perhaps, is that the French government, and especially General de Gaulle, at long last seems ready to accept both the reality and the permanency of Guinean independence and the position of Sékou Touré as a genuine spokesman for a sizable sector of public opinion in French-speaking Black Africa. It is even rumored that Sékou Touré soon will be invited to Paris. Such a development would now seem logical.

Important changes are also evident on the Guinean side . With the independence of Guinea and the liquidation of the French Empire  now established facts, Sékou Toure is understandably less suspicious of the French than he was formerly. Radio Conakry’s “Voice of the Revolution” still denounces colonialism and imperialism over the air waves, and the President still contributes his own excoriations, but the attacks of both are no longer directed against France. Rather, they are aimed at Portugal, Spain, Southern Rhodesia, or South Africa. The end of the Algerian War in July 1962 has greatly diminished anti-French feeling throughout Africa. The way is now open for France to settle those differences which have arisen between it and those of its former colonies who had warmly supported Algerian independence. When Radio Conakry, on March 26, 1962, declared that “collaboration between France and revolutionary Africa is now possible,” it was doing more than voicing a hope. It was expressing a conviction.

Other reasons have impelled a change in the Guinean attitude toward France. The retarded state of the Guinean economy, wrought in part by the often ill-conceived and radical plans of the government, has forced Sékou Touré to reappraise the Socialist structure which he and other party leaders have erected for the country. While the façade remains intact, important changes are nevertheless being effected in the under-structure to bring the economy more in line with economic realities. In keeping with this reappraisal, Toure is taking measures to repair his relations with private enterprise. Guinea’s enactment (in April 1962) of a new code designed to protect and to give certain advantages to foreign investment is aimed at encouraging French businessmen, among others, to put money once again into Guinea. A further important development is Sékou Toure’s cautious but steady overtures toward the Union Africaine et Malgache (U.A.M.), the organization comprising the former French territories that remain pro-French in sentiment.
The U.A.M. has brought far more concrete benefits to its members than has either the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union or the Casablanca Group of which Guinea is a member. It is not unlikely that Sékou Touré would like to see Guinea establish closer ties with this organization. The association of the U.A.M. states with the European Economic Community, and the millions in financial aid and technical assistance which this relationship will bring to Africa can be expected to exert their own persuasive influence.

French claims against Guinea, deriving on the one hand from debts which Guinea contracted from F.I.D.E. S., and on the other from Guinea’s seizure of certain French commercial enterprises, about equal those of Guinea against France. Guinea’s claims arise from its honoring the payment of pensions due Guinean veterans who served in the French armed services and which the French stopped paying at the time of the currency reform. Guinea’s seizure of bank deposits in C.F.A. francs in 1960 when it created its own money is a matter which should not pose a great obstacle in a settlement with France. As the funds, technically speaking, were the property not of the French government but of the West African Monetary Union, it is with this organ that the Guineans eventually will have to come to terms. Once friendly  relations with the French have been restored , this matter should be settled expeditiously and probably in a way favorable to Guinea.

In sum, attitudes have changed both in France and in Guinea and there is now good reason to hope that the two nations may at last resolve their differences. It is in the interest of neither to prolong the conflict. With its demise, the old wounds can begin to heal.

1. “La France prend acte du vote de la Guinée,” in Sékou Touré, L’action politique du Parti Démocratique de Guinée pour l’émancipation africaine (Conakry, 1958), pp. 13 – 14; also “Représentation de la R.F. en Guinée,” La semaine en A.O.F., 4 octobre 1958, pp. 12-15.
2. On October 9, 1958, President Touré sent the following telegram to General de Gaulle:
“ … After promulgation of new Constitution of French Republic, Government of Republic of Guinea … awaits recognition by French Government to engage in negotiations for free association of our two Republics. STOP. Accept sentiments of my highest esteem. ( signed) Sékou Touré.” Quoted from “Les rapports Franco- Guinéens,” in Sékou Touré, L’action politique du Parti Démocratique de Guinée pour l’émancipation africaine, Tome 2, n.p., n.d. (Conakry? 1959? ) p . 16 1. (Translation mine.)
3. Constitution of the Fifth French Republic, Title XIII, Agreement on Association, Article 88: “The Republic or the Community may make
agreements with States that wish to associate themselves with the Community in order to develop their own civilizations.”
4. See “Reorganization of the Guinean Economy” (VDB-1-’63), an AUFS
5. A previous cultural accord between the two countries had been signed on January 7, 1959.
6. France-Soir, 17 aout 1961.
7. Le Monde, 21 mars 1962.
8.  Ibid., 27 mars 1962.
9. See “Changing Relations Among Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Mali”
(VDB-4-’62), an AUFS publication.

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