Paris — French diplomacy in Africa once again is being severely challenged by the situation in Chad. France's repeated attempts to mediate a permanent cease-fire among feuding Muslim factions in chad so far have failed.
A renewed outbreak of fighting recently thus has raised serious doubts here as to France's ability to find a solution to a problem that has dogged this nation for almost 20 years.
Moreover, restiveness in Chad comes when France is similarly preoccupied with the worsening military situation in southern Morocco and efforts to create a stable, internationally acceptable government in the Central African Republic.
Chad, which formerly was part of French Equatorial Africa and which is one of the world's poorest nations, achieved independence in 1960. It has been in a virtual state of war ever since.
According to reports reaching Paris from N'djamena, the capital of Chad, heavy fighting with cannon, mortar, and machine-gun fire broke out last weekend between the "army of the north" headed by Prime Minister Hissein Habre and the "popular armed forces" of President Goukouni Oueddei. As many as 3,000 well-armed troops were said to be involved in the fighting.
France, which maintains a 1,100-man expenditionary military force in the capital, formerly called Fort Lamy, managed to persuade the two factions to withdraw their forces and agree to a cease-fire on March 23. But by dawn the next day, the truce broke down completely and further fierce fighting erupted.
A third political faction, the Libyan-supported "front of common action," reportedly was also making its way toward N'djamena to join President Oueddei from a base 50 miles away. A fourth rival group apparently is moving toward the capital to come to the aid of Mr. Habre.
French government officials fear that this general movement of armed groups could expand the conflict and throw the country once again into a full-scale civil war.
In August last year, 11 political factions agreed to a cease- fire at a peace conference in Lagos, Nigeria. In the previous month, an estimated 5,000 people reportedly died in the fighting.
No exact casually figures were known at this time of writing, but French Foreign Ministry officials here in Paris believe that "several hundred have been killed." One French soldier died and another was wounded by stray bullets. Two Jesuit priests were also injured when a mortar shell fell on a Roman Catholic mission building.
Among the 800 European living in Chad, many of them technical advisors, teachers, and doctors, 300 already have been evacuated to neighboring Cameroon abroad French transport aircraft or by ferryboat across the Chari River. At least 30 Americans, including United States Ambassador Donald Norland and his wife, were among those evacuated.
The US issued an evacuation order for its dependents during the weekend following the start of the bloody street fighting in N'dajema. Those foreigners remaining in the capital have sought refuge at France's only remaining military base in the country, or are being escorted from their homes to the base by French soldiers.
None of the soldiers from France's elite 11th Paratroop Division and its 19th Infantry Marine Division are participating in the fighting. "We have a strictly neutral position in the present conflict," claimed a French Foreign Ministry official.
A contingent of 500 Congolese soldiers, which was flown into Chad as part of an African peace-keeping force following the August, 1979 agreement, also keeping out the fray.
Last year, the French government announced that it would remove its entire 2, 600-man military force, first introduced 12 years ago, from the area. More than half were eventually withdrawn, but Chad's shaky new regime requested that the remainder stay on as a security measure.
Two years ago, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing announced just prior to the Franco-African summit that "our African friends as well as French public opinion should know that France has been induced to react in certain situations, but it has never been the origin of these situations."
Some analysts argue that France's continued presence in Chad has only succeeded in "creating a further situation." In any case, Chad represents a diplomatic failure for the French.
In present circumstances, if France were to remove its military presence from Chad, it would only be accused by other African nations, particularly some former colonies who still look to paternalistic France for political and economic guidance, of abandoning its friends.