/ 25 October 2007

Africa’s gendarme France not hanging up baton yet

France is trying to shed its reputation as ”Africa’s policeman” but, despite efforts to involve European partners in peacekeeping missions, there are no signs it will hang up its baton just yet.

France won backing last month for an European Union force to be deployed soon in east Chad and Central African Republic, where it already has troops stationed. The EU force will protect civilians from a 4-year-old conflict spilling across from Sudan’s Darfur region.

This marks progress in Paris’ new policy of involving European allies in a region it once regarded as its ”backyard”. But France will still provide the bulk of the troops of the up to 3 000-strong EU contingent, and its logistical backbone.

”France has a vision of multilateral intervention but it is the only European country that has a military presence,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House. ”They are lonely in Africa. There is no-one else to take the lead.”

France has five bases on mainland Africa — in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, Chad and Djibouti — with 11 000 men there. The United States, by contrast, has 1 800 troops in Djibouti and Britain only has training missions in Kenya and Sierra Leone.

Between 1962 and 1995 France intervened 19 times in Africa, installing presidents and propping up governments across the continent. But a much-criticised humanitarian intervention in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, blamed for worsening the slaughter, prompted ex-President Jacques Chirac’s government to rethink.

Cutbacks to Europe’s largest army have prompted calls from French commanders for a retrenchment in Africa, but political expediencies have hampered France’s disengagement. There are still about 240 000 French expatriates living in Africa.

”The plans to downsize French troop commitment are not new … but a number of events over the last 10 years has slowed this, notably the Ivorian crisis,” said Daniela Kroslak, African Research Director at Crisis Group.

Sucked in

Once the jewel of France’s West African possessions, Côte d’Ivoire descended into economic stagnation and ethnic tensions during the 1990s, leading eventually to a 2002 to 2003 civil war. France deployed 5 000 troops to separate the sides and evacuated hundreds of its citizens amid riots in Abidjan in November 2004.

About 3 000 troops remain and provide the logistical muscle for a UN mission, but Paris announced cuts to the costly Licorne force almost immediately after a peace deal in March.

”Licorne costs us €250-million a year,” French Ambassador Andre Janier said. ”The sooner we replace Licorne soldiers with technical assistants, the better for Ivory Coast.”

More recently, France has provided logistical aid to Chadian President Idriss Déby against eastern rebels, and bombed insurgents in northern Central African Republic under bilateral defence agreements dating back to independence.

Chad’s opposition has accused France of propping up Déby, who seized power in a 1990 coup, but French diplomats say the alternative would be chaos. Analysts see the complex mission in eastern Chad as a test for the independence of the EU missions.

”It’s difficult to intervene in Chad without becoming embroiled in local politics,” said Vines. ”Even if it shares military duties, France wants to control these EU missions.”

Politics, not petrol

France’s bases in Africa do not overlap with her commercial interests, which lie in oil producers Angola and Nigeria, and in South Africa. But France’s military and political sway in Africa are important to its claims to be a world power, analysts say.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who took office in May, has pledged to end France’s cosy ties with Africa’s ruling elites, known as ”Francafrique”. But on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, he courted a pillar of this system, Gabonese President Omar Bongo, installed by French troops in 1964.

”There has been a generation change in French government circles. Africa doesn’t have the same importance geo-politically that it did for Chirac and Mitterrand,” said Kroslack.

”But we will have to wait and see if Sarkozy will change French involvement.”

Sarkozy has adopted a more conciliatory approach than his predecessors towards the United States, which has created a stand-alone African command, ending a long retreat from the continent after the 1993 ”Black Hawk Down” fiasco in Somalia.

”The French are watching Africom with interest, but they are more worried by the growing re-engagement of China,” said Vines. – Reuters