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France provides support - but not troops - to Chad

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 1983


The widening war in Chad is turning into a delicate diplomatic test for the government of President Francois Mitterrand. Mr. Mitterrand wants to check the adventurism of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi and to safeguard France's extremely close ties with its former colonies in Africa, many of which have called for direct French military intervention. But Mr. Mitterrand is also sensitive to charges of neocolonialism, and he does not relish being dragged back into the quagmire of Chad's nearly 20-year-long off-and-on civil war.

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As a result, the French President has adopted a cautious position. After Libyan aircraft bombed the northern Chadian town of Faya-Largeau, he sent the government of Hissein Habre antiaircraft guns to reinforce an earlier airlift of 400 tons of military supplies. But Mitterrand refused Mr. Habre's requests for French troops and kept the four French Jaguar interceptors based in Libre-ville, Gabon, from tangling with Libyan jets.

''We have no intention of sending troops,'' a French Foreign Ministry official repeated. Although he described the Libyan air intervention as ''outrageous,'' he said at present levels it does not represent a serious threat to government forces holding Faya-Largeau.

This could soon change, however. The air attacks, at first thought to be only defensive measures designed to cover a rebel retreat, have continued longer than expected.

Western officials in Chad Sunday reported that Soviet-made tanks, heading south from Libya, were only a few miles north of Faya-Largeau. The Americans fear this movement foreshadows an imminent counterattack by the forces of rebel leader Goukhouni Woddei, perhaps this time alongside Libyan troops.

The French are hoping the Americans are wrong. Foreign Ministry officials refuse to confirm the tank movements. They say privately that they believe American fears about Libyan adventurism are exaggerated.

''The Americans are obsessed with Qaddafi,'' a French Foreign Ministry official said. ''To be sure, Libya is playing a destabilizing role. But let's not forget that Chad's problems are just as much internal.''

The French say they know this from experience. Since Chad became independent in 1964, they have sent troops four times to keep peace in the landlocked and virtually bankrupt state, each time only to find the country's various chieftains at war soon after they left.

It is not surprising, then, that recent headlines in Le Monde refer to Chad as ''a wasps' nest'' and ''the endless safaris.''

Even conservative French politicians have urged caution. Pierre Messmer, defense minister in the 1960s, said the French had been ''victims of a certain intoxication'' in the past, intervening unnecessarily in strictly local African conflicts.

The French are taking the same line about the coup Friday in Upper Volta that brought to power a paratroop captain with close ties to Qaddafi. American diplomats said the coup may have been ''Qaddafi influenced'' and expressed great concern about the development, but French officials emphasized that it was ''an internal affair.''