Last May, French soldiers, warplanes and helicopters helped put down an army mutiny in the Central African Republic to the north of Zaire and even acted as a Praetorian Guard for President Ange-Felix Patasse.
"France has continued to believe that with two sections of paratroopers, you can make policy in Africa," Lugan said.
Sub-Saharan African trade with the French accounts for 2.5% of France's total, making Paris' persistent attachment to Mobutu appear inexplicable in terms of self-interest. France has fewer holdings in Zaire than the U.S. or Belgium.
"It's the complex of Fashoda," explained Lugan, referring to a stretch of rain-swept marsh in present-day Sudan where rival British and French expeditions came face to face in 1898 to claim the headwaters of Africa's most important river, the Nile. The French were forced to back down, and nearly a century later, some in France have not forgotten.
For them, Zaire has been Fashoda all over again, though the means given the French-speaking Mobutu to resist rebels aided by the English-speaking governments of Uganda and Rwanda--a few score mercenaries--show how far France has fallen since the days of empire.
"In people's minds there is an equation: Mobutu equals France, and Kabila equals the Anglo-Saxons," acknowledged an official at the French Foreign Ministry.
Ironically, the French did once decide to jettison Mobutu, when the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand was slashing support for pro-French but dictatorial and corrupt "dinosaurs" in French-speaking Africa.
The Rwandan crisis, however, made Mobutu, though weakened, once again an indispensable ally for the French, who had few other friends in the region.
"The fact we demanded Mobutu conduct democratic politics, and cut our aid to him, was perhaps suicidal for France," Jolly said.
The historian sees the Zairian crisis as an illustration of how old colonial masters such as France can do little about the fact that Africans are taking a greater role in their own affairs.
"There is a new generation of Africans in Rwanda and Uganda, for instance, who are pushing their pawns forward and trying to do things without the great powers," Jolly said. "Africans are organizing and starting to take their own affairs in hand."
Jules Ferry, the jingoistic 19th century prime minister who spurred France into the race for overseas colonies, once called Africa "that huge black continent so full of fierce mysteries and vague hopes."
Checkmated in their ambition to keep a longtime client in power, the French now appear to be preparing for the post-Mobutu era.
A retired general, Jeannou Lacaze, France's former military chief of staff, traveled to Lubumbashi this week for the first meetings between the French and Kabila's rebel alliance on the latter's home turf.
French officials said the visit is "private."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.