François Hollande’s African adventures

The French are reorganising security in an increasingly troubled region   20140719_EUD001FRANCE’s president, François Hollande, took office in 2012 knowing little of Africa. He may tread in the footsteps of his mentor, François Mitterrand, but he had none of the former Socialist president’s cosy ties to African strongmen and French businessmen through the web of interests known as Françafrique. Yet Africa has a way of intruding on French politics. And Mr Hollande’s tour of Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad between July 17th and 19th takes place amid a security rethink. Accompanied by a group of businessmen, Mr Hollande’s trip is partly meant to promote investment and contracts against Chinese competition. But the more pressing goal is to prepare for a new French security organisation. Twice last year, with uncharacteristic decisiveness, Mr Hollande sent French troops into African conflicts: to beat back a jihadist incursion in Mali, and to curb ethno-religious warfare in the Central African Republic (CAR). Now France wants to reorganise its troops in the region, under the banner “Operation Barkhane”, as a 3,000-strong counter-terrorism force. The new force will be permanent, with its headquarters in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. It has been designed with five countries that span the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, all former colonies. A thousand French soldiers will remain indefinitely in Mali (down from a peak of over 4,000 last year), focused on counter-terrorism operations in the north, where there has been a resurgence of violence. Another 1,200 will be stationed in Chad, the rest split between a surveillance base in Niger, a bigger permanent base in Ivory Coast, and some special forces in Burkina Faso. The French will supply Barkhane with 20 helicopters, 200 armoured vehicles, ten transport aircraft, six fighter planes and three drones. The timing is linked to the winding down of “Operation Serval” in Mali. “The main objective of our intervention has been achieved,” claims Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister. In a narrow sense, he is right: the operation has kept the country from Islamist control and from becoming a “jihadistan”. Elections took place last year. The French are handing day-to-day security to a 6,500-strong UN stabilisation force known by its French acronym, MINUSMA. Yet the French have found the handover slow and the competence of the new troops variable. The transfer was recently delayed by an upsurge in violence between Malian troops and Tuareg separatists in northern Mali. On July 14th a French soldier was killed in northern Mali, underlining the instability. Those who had hoped that the French would be able to leave quickly (Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, originally said it was not France’s role to stay permanently) have had to revise their ambitions. The new emphasis on counter-terrorism reflects shifting French military doctrine in Africa. Six years ago, under Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Hollande’s conservative predecessor, a defence review concluded that France should concentrate less on bilateral defence ties to ex-colonies in French-speaking Africa and more on a “strategic arc” of instability from north Africa to the Horn of Africa and the Gulf. With this in mind, Mr Sarkozy closed one of the three permanent French military garrisons in sub-Saharan Africa, in Senegal, and opened a new one in Abu Dhabi. French forces were to act less as regional gendarmes propping up vulnerable leaders, and do more for cross-border security and to combat terrorism. The threat has grown since the fall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and the focus has also shifted geographically: towards a desert “motorway” that reaches from the porous borders of southern Libya through the Sahel to the Atlantic. Along it flow arms, drugs, illegal immigrants and jihadists. The French want to disrupt these networks, which periodically target their citizens for hostage-taking. Hence the new emphasis on a light security footprint, with the capacity to operate fast and flexibly. “It’s a significant change from the old model,” notes François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research. “Hollande is confirming and developing what was begun under Sarkozy.” France’s changing African ambitions are not without controversy. British noses were put out of joint by an unexpected French interest in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, which has strong post-colonial ties to Britain. In an oddly flashy way Mr Hollande invited regional leaders to Paris in May for a summit on security in Nigeria, to discuss how to combat Boko Haram terrorists in the Islamic north. With Nigeria bordered by four French-speaking neighbours, including Niger and Chad, the French have a clear interest in co-operation. But they are used to acting single-handedly in the region, and the British are wary of interference with their own surveillance activities. At the same time, France is struggling with its operation in the CAR. Its mission was partly humanitarian, amid “pre-genocidal” massacres by armed Muslim and Christian groups, and partly a strategic effort to avoid the collapse of a landlocked, mineral-rich state at the intersection of many regional conflicts. Yet seven months afterwards, horrific bloodshed and pillaging continue. On a trip earlier this month, his sixth, Mr Le Drian had to change his itinerary after the slaughter of 20 civilians in one town. A UN report describes the country as “de facto partitioned”. Mr Le Drian still hopes to reduce the number of French troops in the CAR, once a UN force begins to take over from African peacekeepers in September. But the chances of this happening fast are slim. “We found a situation in the CAR that was worse than we had thought,” concedes a French official. “We have a tendency to assume we know these places because we ran them in the past.” Without the French intervention, a real genocide might have taken place. But Mr Hollande, doubtless emboldened by his earlier success in Mali, underestimated the strength of the force needed to make a difference—and, once there, the difficulty of leaving. *Source Economist ]]>

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