January 18, 2016 / 12:41 PM / 3 years ago

Gabon recalls Paris ambassador after election comments

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon has recalled its ambassador to Paris after France’s prime minister appeared to question the legitimacy of President Ali Bongo’s election in 2009, the central African country said.

The latest sign of fraying relations between Gabon and its former colonial ruler follows a French investigation into the origins of the wealth of the Bongo family, which has ruled the oil producing nation since 1967.

Asked during a television interview on Saturday whether Bongo had been democratically elected, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: “No, not as I understand it.”

Gabon’s Interior Minister Pacome Moubelet Boubeya told state television late on Sunday that the government was seeking clarification of Valls’ remark.

“We are surprised and shocked by the words of Manuel Valls when our two countries have such excellent relations,” he said.

France’s foreign ministry said it was “extremely attached” to its relationship with Gabon under the presidency of Bongo since he was elected in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who had ruled since the 1960s.

Foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters that the ambassadors of both countries had met government representatives in each capital on Monday, “to remove any misunderstanding”.

In August Bongo is expected to seek a second seven-year mandate and will run against one of his main critics, Jean Ping, a former African Union chairman. Gabon’s opposition disputed the result of the 2009 election at the time.

Gabon has twice before recalled Ambassador Germain Ngoyo Moussavou in recent years, although each time he has been reinstated.

For decades after independence in 1960, France and Gabon remained close allies under “Francafrique” - a system whereby veteran African leaders were given security guarantees in exchange for business deals.

Gabon is one of Africa’s richest countries but wealth is very unevenly distributed.

France remains a key player in Gabon’s economy, with more than 100 companies based there, including the country’s biggest oil producer, Total.

It has a military base in the capital Libreville with more than 400 French soldiers.

Reporting by Gerauds Wilfried Obangome and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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