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France tries to rewrite its role in Africa

Published: Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 11:30 p.m. CDT

PARIS – France is coming to the rescue again, deploying soldiers in a former African colony to help stave off catastrophe– dirty work that Paris says it doesn’t really want. France has its eyes on a dynamic new Africa that is creating jobs, not conflicts.

But the image of France as the gendarme of Africa is hard to erase.

French troops deployed to deal with the deadly chaos in Central African Republic just as some 40 leaders from Africa, including the Central African Republic’s transitional prime minister, met in Paris on Friday and Saturday.

The summit made progress toward creating a French-trained African rapid reaction force to enable the continent to meet its own security needs – while allowing France to maintain ties to the region that may pay off economically in the longer term.

France’s idea of itself as a one-time colonial master cannot be easily shaken off. The French empire unraveled in the 1960s, but a half-century later, African leaders routinely call for help, and the calls don’t often go ignored.

Since 2011, under two presidents from opposing political camps, France has intervened in four African countries: in Ivory Coast, on a joint mission in Libya, in Mali, and now Central African Republic.

In January, France sent in 5,000 troops to Mali to quash al-Qaida and other radicals in the north seen as a terrorist threat to countries around the region. That dwarfs the mission in Central African Republic, where President Francois Hollande says 1,600 French troops will help some 6,000 African troops secure the nearly lawless country, where sectarian strife has grown after Muslim rebels ousted the president in March.

In both Mali and Central African Republic, Paris obtained African and international backing via the U.N. Security Council. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Saturday he’s “grateful to all the countries contributing with soldiers ... and in particular to France for boosting its military support.”

Yet Hollande doesn’t want France to be the first, and sometimes only, responder to emergencies in Africa. France tried over several months to not intervene in Central African Republic.

Hollande announced a push to change France’s role as savior to assistant at an African Union summit in Ethiopia in May, saying it is Africans who must assure their own security. Many African officials agree on the concept, though details of the plan are still being worked out.

France is pushing for the AU’s rapid reaction force to be put in place in the coming months, and promised at the weekend summit to provide equipment and train up to 20,000 African troops a year. The U.N. would fund peacekeeping operations once it’s fully operational. Until then, Hollande said the EU should pitch in money “because the two continents are linked.”

Hollande is not the first president to try to disassemble a heavy heritage, or profit from a continent whose image is changing from one of endless conflict to a burgeoning hub for investment.

Even the symbols of war are getting softer. The French move into Central African Republic is dubbed Operation Sangaris, after a local butterfly. The 1979 intervention to depose Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Central African Republic dictator and self-proclaimed emperor accused of cannibalism, was called Operation Barracuda.

Extricating France from its colonial past, without abandoning traditional partners in time of need, can be complex. The paternalistic partnerships Paris cultivated for decades with former colonies lined the pockets of dictators and dealers, and encouraged dependency. Today, the unwritten policy known as Franceafrique is officially disdained.

But Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita says that both sides remain bound to each other.

“France, alas, has a historic duty” to its ex-colonies, Keita said in an interview with the daily Le Monde. “When you have traveled the road together, as painful as it sometimes may have been, something remains. .... We are condemned to walk together.”

France’s government insists it doesn’t want to interfere in internal African affairs. But Hollande expressed open distaste Saturday for the rebel-leader-turned-president of Central African Republic: “I don’t want to point fingers, but we cannot keep in place a president who was not able to do anything, or even worse, who let things happen,” Hollande said on France-24 television, urging elections “as fast as possible.”

Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations, said that a decade from now France won’t be able to intervene as it is today. For one thing, budget squeezes won’t allow it to replace aging equipment.

“So there are many small gaps in terms of capacity,” she said. And, she added, “There’s a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene.”

The real question, she said, is: “Can you intervene in the right way, and when do you leave?”

That’s a question that has particularly haunted France since its failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where 800,000 people were killed. French troops were in the country when the massacre of minority Tutsis by Hutu militias began.

Rwanda has sometimes accused French troops of participating in the killings – which France flatly denies. But it acknowledges that it shares responsibility with the international community for not stopping the slaughter.

Meanwhile, Paris also wants a piece of the economic pie in a rising Africa, where average growth is above 5 percent. At the Africa summit, French officials reached a deal aimed at doubling trade with the continent by 2020.

“We can sell Airbuses, food. We can invest,” Fabius said Sunday on France-3 television. “The interest of Africa and the interest of Europe, notably France, is to move closer together. ... Our future is with the Africans.”

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