An Expanded Role for France

Africa's New Policeman?

A French soldier mans a checkpoint in Congo
A French soldier mans a checkpoint on the road to the Bunia airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 24, 2003 (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP-Getty Images).

Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo: The pace of French actions is speeding up. In English-speaking Liberia, French soldiers have left their traditional stomping grounds to come to the aid of Liberia’s foreign community, trapped by fighting in Monrovia, the capital. At the same time, an airlift is ferrying more than 1,000 French soldiers from Entebbe, Uganda, to Bunia, in northern Congo, under a United Nations-mandated effort to restore peace in the war-torn Ituri region.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is supervising this new French interest in the poorest and most troubled countries, plans to give an outline of France’s new policy in an address to the Institute of Higher National Defense Studies in Paris on June 13. His speech coincides with France’s return to the Great Lakes region of central Africa, nine years after the tragedy in Rwanda.

There was a notable French presence in Kigali in the 1990s, and France was accused of complicity with the extremists who launched the Rwandan genocide in April 1994. French officials were assailed for failing to halt or slow the massacre of the Tutsi population [by extremists mainly from the majority Hutu tribe]. These officials took no action in the face of an unheard-of wave of hatred and violence. And in July 1994, when the [Hutu-led] government was crumbling, the tactical headquarters of France’s “Operation Turquoise” organized the evacuation to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) of the prominent Rwandans who were implicated in this genocide.

This turning point in Franco-African relations was followed by a long period in which France retreated from African affairs. The continent seemed to have vanished from the priority list at the Quai d’Orsay [seat of France’s Foreign Ministry]. Since his arrival at the Foreign Ministry, however, de Villepin has reversed course. Confronted immediately on taking office with the crisis in Madagascar, de Villepin took only days to bring an end to months of official hesitation. Madagascar’s new leader Marc Ravalomanana, who had emerged successful from an electoral and later a military face-off with his rival, former president Didier Ratsiraka, won French recognition for his government when de Villepin made a lightning visit to Antananarivo in July [2002]. Since then, calm has returned to the island.

Then came the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. At the beginning of the revolt [against President Laurent Gbagbo], France tried to stabilize the situation on the ground to “avoid the worst.” More than 3,000 French soldiers were deployed in the biggest French mili-tary intervention in Africa since “Turquoise” in Rwanda. From the beginning, the specter of Rwanda was present in everyone’s mind, even if the context in Côte d’Ivoire was different. Death squads were striking in Abidjan, while ethnic hatred was spreading. It was out of the question for France to support one side or the other, diplomatically or militarily.

In the second phase, de Villepin “moved the lines” forward. He took the lead in prescribing a formula for peace and imposing national reconciliation. But the Linas-Marcoussis agreements, signed in the Paris suburbs in January by all the Ivorian political parties, led to violent anti-French demonstrations orchestrated by supporters of President Gbagbo. The Ivorian leader “had had his arm twisted,” supposedly; he accepted the spirit of Linas-Marcoussis but was loath to apply the letter of the agreements. Several of the rebel leaders, who have united under the heading of  “new forces,” now have ministerial titles, as do leading opponents of the government from Alassane Ouattara’s Rally of Republicans Party. An unhealthy climate reigns in Abidjan, where the paper that’s been put over the cracks is thin and fragile. The slightest incident—not to mention the assassination of a leading politician—could trigger a new explosion of violence. Gbagbo’s people have significantly strengthened their military capability, while the rebels refuse to disarm.

Long after they had stabilized the cease-fire line in the north of the country, the French troops were finally deployed in the west, a region rotten with militia from neighboring Liberia. The rebel leaders, as a result, have sent their embarrassing child-soldiers back across the border into Liberia. But the Ivorian National Army, known as FANCI [its French acronym], hasn’t gotten rid of some 2,000 “Lima” fighters, the Liberian refugees they use as auxiliaries. [Lima, the radio call sign for the letter “L,” signifies “Liberian” in Côte d’Ivoire.] And although it hasn’t grabbed many headlines in the world press, the fighting in the west of Côte d’Ivoire has killed thousands of civilians, even as the fighting inside Liberia between supporters of President Charles Taylor and LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) guerrilla forces has now entered Monrovia. Thus, 400 French soldiers from “Operation Unicorn” in Côte d’Ivoire were detailed this past Monday to evacuate Westerners from Monrovia.

Despite these initiatives, France denies any ambition of becoming the new “policeman” in Africa and notes that it is intervening in a multilateral context. The dispatch of French troops to Ituri is presented as the “first large-scale, independent European military operation.” Carried out jointly with Britain, the operation, known as “Mamba,” marks a reconciliation between London and Paris after the disagreement over Iraq. Within Africa, Operation Mamba has the support of Congo itself, a large French-speaking country, but also of Uganda, the logistical base for the deployment, and, through an odd twist in history, the tacit consent of Rwanda.