France to review Africa defence pacts

France will renegotiate all its defence accords with African countries, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday in a move that could scale back France’s military support for some of its closest allies.

France has defence cooperation agreements with several former colonies under which its forces provide varying degrees of military assistance, but Sarkozy has set out to reshape the country’s relationship with Africa.

“France has no call to maintain armed forces in Africa indefinitely,” Sarkozy told South Africa’s Parliament on a state visit to the continental power.

“I am not saying that the existing agreements should necessarily be scrapped and that everything should be erased with the stroke of a pen,” Sarkozy continued. “They must reflect Africa as it is today and not as it was yesterday.”

After colonial rule ended in the 1960s, France regularly intervened to prop up favoured rulers in French-speaking Africa, sometimes drawing accusations of helping dictators to protect entrenched business and political interests.

France has around 9 500 troops stationed in Africa, of whom 2 900 are based in Djibouti.

“The drafting of these [defence] agreements is obsolete and it is no longer conceivable, for example, that the French army should be dragged into internal conflicts,” Sarkozy said.

Defence agreements would be transparent, the “best antidote” to what he called misunderstandings about Paris’ intentions.

“This does not mean that France is disengaging from Africa,” he said.

“On the contrary, I want France to engage to an even greater extent, alongside the African Union, in putting together the collective security system that Africa needs, because African security is of course first and foremost a matter for the Africans to handle.”

Jean-Dominique Merchet, a journalist at left-wing French daily Libération who specialises in defence matters, said France was seeking to get out of confrontational situations in Africa and shift some of the the burden onto international bodies.

“The idea is to leave on tiptoes while emphasising that we are Africanising, Europeanising or internationalising operations on African soil,” he said.

The change in French policy comes as the United States steps up its own security engagement on the continent with the creation last year of a new miiltary command for Africa.

Washington too has stressed it wants to help Africans help themselves, but has been forced to allay fears that its presence may fan terrorism instead of combating it.

Measured damage control

Sarkozy caused outrage in sub-Saharan Africa last year on his first visit as president, when he suggested the continent had failed to embrace progress.

In Cape Town, Sarkozy said Africa had managed to ignite hope. “Africans have had enough of being lectured to about morals and good governance,” he said.

On the way to South Africa, Sarkozy had stopped in Chad, where France helped President Idriss Déby Itno against a rebel attack on the capital earlier this month.
He pushed Déby Itno to talk to civilian opposition leaders.

Under some defence agreements, French forces can intervene in internal conflicts, as they did in Central African Republic last year. Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon have similar agreements. Some others have looser arrangements.

In Paris, officials said the renegotiation of existing agreements would be a huge job. “We’re starting again from scratch. We’re putting everything on the table,” said one official at Defence Minister Herve Morin’s office.

Sarkozy said France would increase bilateral aid to Africa to €10-billion ($15-billion) over the next five years and announced a further €2,5-billion in aid to be used to create nearly 300 000 jobs on the continent. - Reuters

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