The French ambassador, Francis Saudubray, has been in Lusaka for just under a year. Yet, he has become an all-round commentator on domestic matters as contentious and sensitive as the constitution, and as delicate as the petroleum sector. He has toured media houses and some towns, promised French investment, attended traditional ceremonies, and, above all, has accused the Zambian government of incompetence. For the year 2005, he can pass as the diplomat most quoted by the Zambian media.
Amid the emotive debate on the constitution, Saudubray felt the need to intervene again. Civil society and opposition parties had been demanding a constituent assembly as the mode of adopting a new constitution, but Ambassador Saudubray stepped in and said the method was not only costly but also cumbersome. He pointed to France and The Netherlands where, he said, parliament approved their constitutions. But Zambia's vocal civic groups told him that such a method had failed before and Zambians were not willing to go the same way again.
Undaunted, the outspoken diplomat next crashed head-on with the government. In October, Zambia faced its worst fuel crisis in decades. The country's only refinery, called Indeni, which the government jointly owns with the French oil firm, Total (on a 50-50 split), was shut down due to a shortage of a processing chemical called Naphtha. The closure, the fourth in the year, nearly brought the economy to a halt as key industries such as mining--the country's economic backbone--cut back production.
The government blamed Total, which manages the refinery, for the disruption. That unsettled Ambassador Saudubray who issued a statement, accusing the government of using Total as a scapegoat.
"It is not for the French embassy to comment on sovereign decisions taken by the Zambian government. But the embassy has to react when a French company is treated as a scapegoat. This seems to be the case of the fuel crisis following the indefinite closure of Indeni," the ambassador said. "The truth, in this instance, is that the Ministry of Energy has artificially kept the price of Indeni petroleum products at a level totally...