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In a classroom packed full of young Gabonese students all waving Union Jack flags, the teacher asks his class if they knew how many countries were in the Commonwealth.
“Fifty-four,” they chant back in English with a heavy Franco-Gabonese accent.
The English lesson in Gabon’s capital Libreville is part of new measures introduced to celebrate the central African nation becoming the newest country to join the Commonwealth, a club of mostly Anglophone former colonies headed up by the Queen.
Along with Togo, which on Saturday also joined at the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda attended by the Prince of Wales, it is the first time new nations have been added in more than a decade.
Both of them are Francophone, with no colonial history under Britain.
The excitement in the classroom is palpable. Some of the children said they were big fans of the Queen.
But most of them are tired of France, Gabon’s former colonial ruler, and hope ties with the UK via joining the Commonwealth can usher in a new era of development.
“I’m very excited about the Commonwealth because our relationship with France is not very good,” said student Darcy Nkongo Ekwamata. “They don’t consider us as equals, they see us as a country that they can just exploit. They don’t want us to industrialise. We need something new and we think that Britain can help us.”
The government of Gabon, a petrostate turned environment pioneer that has been ruled by a powerful dynasty since 1967, hopes that Commonwealth membership will raise the country’s profile on the international stage and lead to a new set of partners as it pivots away from Paris’s influence.
The vendors on the sleepy streets of the capital city of Libreville serve coffee and French-style baguettes but a KFC has just opened by the airport, in a sign that things are changing.
Michael Adamo, the foreign minister, told The Telegraph that Gabon had missed “billions of dollars” worth of opportunities as British and American investors were deterred by the perception that the government only does business with France.
As part of the shift, English has now been made a mandatory language in primary schools in a bid to foster business ties with Anglophone markets. As one of the largest oil producers in Africa, Gabon is hoping that it can ramp up energy exports to Britain and attract British companies.
Another area of cooperation will be the environment. Prince Charles met with President Ali Bongo in London last year to discuss how Gabon became the most carbon-positive country in the world, implementing innovative policies to preserve its huge rainforests. The British government also sent troops to Gabon in 2016 to train park rangers in anti-poaching techniques.
Mr Adamo believes ties with Britain offer African countries a better chance to develop than France.
“The two colonial powers have very different ways of managing their former colonies,” he said.
“We can see very clearly how former British colonies have moved forwards and how the former French colonies have moved forward – the relationships are very different”.
The minister was keen to frame Gabon’s entrance into the Commonwealth as a “diversification of partners”, rejecting the notion that it had cast out its former colonisers.
But France’s reaction suggests that this is exactly how it has been perceived in Paris.
A top official who wished to remain anonymous said that the French embassy in Libreville has made it deliberately harder for Gabonese citizens to get visas to France. The embassy failed to respond to requests for an interview from The Telegraph.
Gabon’s attempt to distance itself from its former ruler adds to a wave of anti-French sentiment that has recently swept across parts of the Sahel and West Africa.
Paris has kept much tighter control on its former empire and is often accused of deposing and installing leaders to suit its interests, in what is known as “la françafrique”. Military coups to oust pro-French leaders have taken place in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea over the last few years.
But the geopolitical shift comes as some surprise in Gabon where the president’s father and former president, Omar Bongo, had very close ties to France. France supported the regime and turned a blind eye to autocracy in exchange for loyalty and the chance to secure business interests in the country – a tactic it replicated across much of Africa.
François Mitterrand, a former French president, parachuted French troops into Libreville in 1990 to help Omar Bongo put down a revolt. Officials are quick to deny that the Bongo family has benefited from France, claiming that Omar Bongo did not use state coffers to buy luxury villas and yachts in France.
Many Gabonese hope that the Commonwealth will put pressure on the government to improve its human rights record and hold free and fair elections – though Britain has so far made no mention of these issues.
“We have been with France for a long time, and nothing has really happened concerning freedom in elections,” said the young Gabonese student. “We hope the Commonwealth will put some pressure on the regime.”
The foreign minister of Togo, another former French colony, said on Saturday membership in the Commonwealth opened the door to 2.5 billion consumers, offered new education opportunities, and tapped a “craze” for English among his countrymen.
“Togo’s membership is motivated by the desire to expand its diplomatic, political, and economic network... as well as to get closer to the English-speaking world,” Robert Dussey told AFP.