The French trading companies that acted as major economic players in francophone black Africa have gone through fundamental changes over the last three decades. After a period of expansion linked to the independence of the colonial territories, the political orientations of the new states, as well as changes in the international market, led to their concentration and, at the same time, to a redeployment of their activities. The successive oil crises and the resulting economic depression reinforced these trends. In the second half of the 1980s, business circles acknowledged that Africa was going through a long-term crisis (CNPF-CIAN Report 1988:XVII). Africa was being marginalised in international exchanges: its significance as a producer as well as a market was limited. Yet, was it necessary to abandon the continent? In spite of the troubles, French enterprises continued and even increased their presence in Africa. How did they adapt? Did the concept of ‘trading company’ mean the same thing in the 1990s as it had in the 1960s? In order to analyse this evolution, this chapter adopts a ‘macroeconomical’ approach that allows a global image of the French commercial presence in sub-Saharan Africa, while also demonstrating the diversity of the situation regarding the different types of enterprises, activities and countries.
The main sources employed in this chapter are the Annuaires des entreprises et organismes outre-mer. This has been systematically checked every five years, from 1955-56 through to 1989-90. The exhaustive character of this publication has enabled the compilation of a sample that is very close to the reality of all the existing trading companies. Two criteria have been used to decide whether a company is a ‘French trading company’ or not: on the one hand, it had to have its registered office in France or, at least, where the owners were French, to have an office or a correspondent there whenever its head office was located in Africa. On the other hand, a company had to mention the word ‘trade’ (or a derivative) in its name or in the description of its activities. Insurance companies, banks and credit organisations as well as engineering companies have, therefore, been excluded. Similarly, local enterprises, even where they were French-owned, were not included.
To begin with, a list was compiled of the French trading companies dealing with Africa according to the Annuaire des entreprises et organismes outre-mer