Cote D’Ivoire, Libya, Mali and now the Central African Republic – the French army has been very busy in Africa over the last couple of years. The latest military intervention began in earnest in Bangui on Sunday, as 1,200 French soldiers joined the 400 already ready there in an attempt to bring some semblance of law and order to a country where none currently exists. Why is France the only foreign nation willing to help? By SIMON ALLISON.
“Calm has returned to Bangui, even if there are still some abuses here and there.” So concluded French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, in the aftermath of the deployment of a total of 1,600 French troops in the Central African Republic. Another African country needs another intervention, and, once again, France offered to help – and has followed through with boots on the ground.
Initial reports show crowds of people giving the French a hero’s welcome, and tense stand-offs between them, the CAR armed forces (what remains of them, at least) and motley bands of Seleka rebels. With an estimated 390 people killed over the last few days in vicious sectarian fighting, there’s little doubt that Bangui – and the rest of the country, which is experiencing similar conflict – is in desperate need of an intervention. And given France’s policy in Africa over the last two years, there was little doubt that France would be the first to answer this call.
Of course, France has been meddling in Africa for a very long time. Along with the British, France had the most extensive colonial empire on the continent. Unlike the British with its (no less damaging) philosophy of ‘indirect rule’, France vigorously imposed its own language and culture on its dominions, attempting to recreate the homeland in Africa’s more temperate climes.
Even post-Independence, France continued to maintain very close ties with the new countries that emerged from its empire. As This is Africa explains in a recent (and somewhat outraged) article:
“Just before France conceded to African demands for independence in the 1960s, it carefully organised its former colonies (CFA countries) in a system of ‘compulsory solidarity’ which consisted of obliging the 14 African states to put 65% of their foreign currency reserves into the French Treasury, plus another 20% for financial liabilities. This means these 14 African countries only ever have access to 15% of their own money! If they need more they have to borrow their own money from the French at commercial rates! And this has been the case since the 1960s.”
“Believe it or not it gets worse…France has the first right to buy or reject any natural resources found in the land of the Francophone countries. So even if the African countries can get better prices elsewhere, they can’t sell to anybody until France says it doesn’t need the resources. In the award of government contracts, French companies must be considered first; only after that can these countries look elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if the CFA countries can obtain better value for money elsewhere.”
Complementing these dubious financial restrictions is the shadowy, deeply corrupt relationship between some French and various African politicians known as ‘La Francafrique’. We’re talking secret treaties, money in brown paper bags and a ‘hear no evil’ approach to electoral fraud and human rights abuses that for a long time characterized the French elite’s dealings with some of the very worst examples of African leadership, as well as involvement in the coups which brought them to power (such as the one in which former CAR President Francois Bozize seized the keys to the president’s office).
Things are different now, apparently. On assuming power in mid-2012, President Francois Hollande vowed that things would change. “The age of what was once called ‘Françafrique’ is over,” he said, speaking to the National Assembly in Dakar, Senegal. “There’s France and there’s Africa. There’s the partnership between France and Africa, with relations based on respect, clarity and solidarity…Respect means a crystal clear definition of France’s military presence in Africa, which can continue only in a legal, transparent framework.
Hollande was directly addressing criticisms levelled at his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had authorized two controversial military interventions in Africa during his tenure. The first was in Libya, where France led the bombing campaign against Gaddafi, ultimately toppling Brother Leader’s regime. Although ostensibly sanctioned by the United Nations, the bombing campaign went far beyond its original mandate which was to protect civilians from atrocities, turning into an aerial campaign against the Libyan government forces.
Then in Cote D’Ivoire, French forces proved to be the difference between two rival claims to the Presidency: the first from Laurent Gbagbo, the recalcitrant incumbent, and the second from challenger Alassane Ouattara (who had an election victory and the support of the international community on his side). France sided with Ouattara, helping his militia defeat Gbagbo’s army. Although this helped to settle a conflict which was swiftly turning into a civil war, questions were raised about France’s motives, and why there was such a large contingent of French troops (1700 of them) in the country to begin with. On this occasion, France seems to have sided with the right candidate; but why is France still acting as the arbiter of a country’s fate, and what would have happened had they backed a different horse?
The change of presidents in France, with Hollande replacing Sarkozy, has done little to diminish France’s appetite for military intervention in Africa, however. Earlier this year, France launched a unilateral air strike against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, and followed it up with a ground attack on their key strongholds. Although France did not have prior authorization for the attack, the United Nations Security Council bestowed its retrospective blessing, and the intervention has been widely hailed as a success (although Mali is far from ‘fixed’, and the dreams of self-governance of the Tuareg minority in the north, as well as those of the not insubstantial section of the population that favour Islamic law, have been squashed in the process).
And now, in CAR, French troops have once again jetted in to save an African country from itself. While there’s no question that CAR needs saving – its government has collapsed, fighting has forced 400,000 people to flee their homes and a deepening humanitarian crisis threatens to envelope the entire country – it’s interesting that France is the only non-African nation to have volunteered to assist (It’s also worth noting that the existing African troop presence has been largely ineffectual, or perceived to be that way, even though it is more than double the strength of the new French contingent).
So why is France so eager to get involved? The trend within the international community in recent years has been to avoid intervention wherever possible. The US withdrew from Iraq, and are in the process of doing so in Afghanistan; and nobody has volunteered to do anything involving actual combat troops in Syria (and when the British government was thinking about it, their parliament rejected the proposal out of hand).
There are a few theories for France’s enthusiasm. One centres around resources: France is desperate to secure vital supplies of uranium (in the Central African Republic), oil (in Cote D’Ivoire and Libya), and gold (Mali). Another looks at the broader economic perspective: three of the four African countries in which France has intervened have been CFA states (all except Libya), and consequently home to a network of French companies and interests, as a well as French nationals, that is considered worth protecting. Then there’s the domestic angle: facing a sluggish economy and poor poll numbers, successive French presidents have tried to boost their own popularity with the time-honoured tactic of going to war (although this approach failed miserably for Sarkozy).
Truth is, in Bangui and surrounds this week, it doesn’t really matter why France is there or what their self-interest might be. Think of it like this: if you’ve just had a heart attack, you don’t care who is driving the ambulance or how much it’s going to cost you, you just get in and hope they’ve got the drugs to make you better. Right now, France is driving the only decent ambulance in town, and CAR’s only chance of getting through this crisis is to sit back and take their medicine. The bill will come later, and what France exacts for its assistance will reveal plenty about its intentions. DM
Photo: A French soldier readies his weapon while lying on the ground in Bangui December 8, 2013. France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony after the U.N. Security Council on Thursday authorised it to use force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order. REUTERS/Herve Serefio
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