The French Military in Africa

The French Military in Africa

France has been reviewing its military doctrine in Africa, with a new emphasis on multilateralism. But events in Chad suggest unilateral action remains on the table.

Last updated February 8, 2008 7:00 am (EST)

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For decades France viewed post-colonial Africa as an exclusive sphere of influence, or pré carré. France still maintains military influence and stations thousands of its troops across the continent, from western Senegal to the Horn of Africa. But changes in its strategic priorities have this posture under review. France has folded many of its African missions into multinational operations since its unhappy experience in Rwanda in 1994, when French troops failed to intervene in the opening days of that nation’s genocide. But recent, small-scale interventions in Chad indicate Paris continues to reserve the right to unilateral action.

What are France’s interests in Africa?

French businesses have longstanding operations in Africa. The continent accounts for 5 percent of France’s exports, and French statistics indicate some 240,000 of its nationals live throughout the region. Though France has diversified its sources of raw materials, Africa remains an important supplier of oil and metals. French officials also stress the importance of encouraging regional stability and development, support of democratic governments. “The African continent is our neighbor, and when it’s shaken by conflict, we’re shaken as well,” said André Dulait, a French parliamentarian during a debate on Africa. But not everyone is convinced African affairs should be of primary importance to French foreign policy. François Roche, editor of the French version of Foreign Policy, argues that resources spent on Africa would be better placed in Asia and South America, where France’s future economic and geopolitical interests are likely to be.

Where are French troops based in Africa?

Of 12,000 French troops engaged in peacekeeping operations around the world, nearly half are deployed in Africa in both military and advisory capacities, according to the French Ministry of Defense. There are three main French bases in Africa. The largest is at Djibouti, with smaller forces at Dakar in Senegal and Libreville in Gabon. Their purpose is to promote regional security, though the base in Djibouti allows France to exercise a measure of military influence in the Middle East. (Also in Djibouti are about 1,500 American personnel of the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa, stationed at the former French base Le Monier since 2003.) There is also a small French force on Reunion island, a French territory located off the coast of Madagascar.

Where are France’s main military engagements in Africa?

  • Chad. France fields some 1,200 troops in Chad to protect French nationals, support the government of President Idriss Deby Itno, and provide logistical and intelligence support to Chadian forces. Since President Nicholas Sarkozy took office in 2007, France has recommitted itself to this mission. It has also undertaken to organize a separate 3,700-strong EU peacekeeping force (EUFOR) expected to deploy in late 2007, but suffering repeated delays (Economist). In February 2008, an attempt by Sudanese-backed rebels to overthrow Deby was beaten back with French assistance, including Mirage warplanes and helicopters based at the airbase at Hadji Kossei near the capital, N’Djamena. Chadian troops have taken advantage of intelligence gathered by these fighters and intelligence leaked from the French embassy. France has publicly insisted its support is simply logistical, but Western reports from Chad indicate French special forces may have directly engaged rebel forces. That has raised concerns about the neutrality of the EU force, to which France is expected to contribute about 1,800 troops. “If the EU force deploys under these circumstances, with France as a belligerent, it can’t seriously be considered neutral,” says Alex de Waal, an expert on Chad and Sudan at the New York-based Social Science Research Council.
  • Central African Republic (CAR). France maintains some 300 troops in the CAR capital Bangui as part of Operation Boali, charged with restructuring the local armed forces and supporting FOMUC, an African force led by the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, a regional body. The French Foreign Ministry claims this intervention helps stabilize the region, a precondition for resolving the conflict in nearby Darfur. But France remains unwilling to intervene in Darfur outside of a multilateral framework. French support for President François Bozizé is a major factor in his maintenance of power. Armed rebellions in the northern and central regions remain a constant threat to the capital. French forces on the ground do not officially engage the rebels, but regional experts such as François Grignon of the International Crisis Group say it’s likely “French special forces were engaged for limited but decisive operations.” TheEconomist reported that French fighters, attack helicopters, and special forces quashed a rebel advance on the capital Bangui in late 2006, allowing government forces to retake towns captured by rebels.
  • Ivory Coast. France deploys approximately 3,000 troops—under a UN mandate—to patrol the buffer zone between the rebel-controlled northern regions and the government-controlled south. The operation is France’s largest and most controversial in Africa. Intransigence on political reforms and disarmament has slowed democratic transition, but a peace was brokered between the government and rebel forces in March 2007. French soldiers and transport aircraft are stationed in nearby Togo to support the operations in Ivory Coast. Locals tend to view French troops as an occupation force; one French observer, as quoted in the Economist, calls Ivory Coast “France’s little Iraq.”

What is the history of French intervention in Africa?

France intervened militarily in Africa nineteen times between 1962 and 1995. Most of the operations were ostensibly to protect French nationals or subdue uprisings against legitimate governments. Yet Professor Shaun Gregory of the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in England says the standard for military support was contingent on an African leader’s willingness to support French interests. As France’s former colonies in Africa gained their independence in the early 1960s, most signed bilateral treaties pledging various degrees of military cooperation and support. Most of these treaties exist today, though some remain state secrets. France expanded these arrangements in the mid-1970s to include the former Belgian colonies of Burundi, Rwanda, and Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Currency links, entrenched French business interests, and close personal relationships between governing elites all contributed to the maintenance of France’s preeminence in the region from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The turning point came with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Some say that France’s humanitarian intervention there in June saved thousands of lives and stabilized the region. Critics, however, point to another French operation in April of that year, whereby a smaller force evacuated French nationals and certain “Rwandan personalities,” including some government officials who were accused of genocide. Andrew Wallis, a researcher at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, goes so far as to link military support for the Hutu regime with the slaughter that eventually occurred. The French embassy in the U.K. strongly denied the claim, saying that “France acted not only in order to prevent the tragedy, but also to mobilize the international community to come to the aid of the genocide victims.” Still, Gregory says Rwanda marked a turning point for French policy in francophone Africa.

How has France’s mission to Africa evolved?

Following French actions in Rwanda and a 1996-1997 crisis in Zaire in which France supported the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, a new Africa policy emerged that eschews a bilateral structure in favor of military cooperation with international forces and African regional bodies. France’s permanent bases are in the process of being ‘Europeanized,’ according to Brigadier General Dominique Trinquand, as France invites other European countries to commit forces to the bases. The placement of the bases is also consistent with the African Union’s geographical division of the continent into western, eastern, and central zones.

France conducts joint maneuvers and peacekeeping training through the Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capacities (RECAMP) program and its Peacekeeping School (EMP) in Mali, which has trained over 800 African officers. These institutions intended to support the African Standing Force, a 20,000 strong rapid-response peacekeeping force projected to be ready by 2010.

Despite the move toward multilateralism, France hasn’t fully abandoned its traditional, bilateral structure. According to Radio France International, France has yet to officially revise or renegotiate the secret and public defense treaties signed with a select number of African countries. Critics charge that France uses this secrecy, as well as ambiguous definitions of what defines internal or external threats, to intervene according to its own interests. Even within an international framework, moreover, France has remained the motor of many peacekeeping operations during a period when Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a French national, has been UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations. “France is still keen to exercise a leading role,” says Rachel Utley, a lecturer in international history at the University of Leeds, “while offsetting the political, military, diplomatic, and financial costs of formerly national operations.”

What factors explain this evolution?

Some experts say it was a series of political missteps in the 1990s that resulted in France’s current policy on the continent. But budgetary concerns and a changing strategic climate have also pushed France toward its new multilateral approach. Structural changes in the armed forces—abandoning the draft, sharp reductions in the size of the French military, and base closures between 1997 and 2002—mean that France can no longer maintain the dominance it exercised in the 1960s and 1970s.

During his election campaign, Sarkozy said he was opposed to the French practice of propping up dubious African regimes. “Françafrique,” as the policy was called, had become burdensome and Sarkozy wanted France to become more engaged in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. But French analysts say Sarkozy may have decided in February 2008 that the EU’s mission in eastern Chad depended on France’s ability to keep Chadian President Deby in office.

International terrorism also figures in France’s continuing engagement in Africa. France’s strategy is one of “prevention and projection,” which emphasizes using the smallest force possible, optimizing use of military technology, prioritizing intelligence, and pre-positioning forces in a region to respond quickly to crises—all of which are reflected in current African deployments.  

How do American and French interests in the region intersect?

While France has reduced the size of its forces in Africa, the United States is increasing its presence. In addition to the counterterrorism force in Djibouti, the United States has secured agreements with ten southern and western African nations to provide them with logistical support. The U.S. military has launched a new joint command, U.S.-Africa Command (AFRICOM) to oversee operations on the continent. The command began operations in October 2007 out of the offices of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and is seeking a permanent home in Africa. In announcing the new command, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cited unstable African regions as possible havens for terrorists. He also noted AFRICOM would be an interagency command, with the State Department playing a special role compared with other military districts. In a larger context, some experts say a permanent Africa-based U.S. command could be taken as a sign that the era of exclusively French military influence on the continent is effectively over.

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