As fighting rages in Chad, France's new role revealed
France did not repel this weekend's coup attempt on its former colony as it has in the past, but the UN Monday approved unilateral French action to support Chad's government.
Johannesburg, South Africa; and Paris
As rebels pulled out of Chad's besieged capital, N'Djamena – allegedly to allow the city's 700,000 civilians to flee before the rebels return to take over the country – Chad's ongoing political crisis entered a crucial stage.Skip to next paragraph
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Unlike previous rebellions where Chad's former colonial ruler, France, came to the government's rescue, this coup attempt will be left to take its own course, with massive implications for the nation and the nearly 400,000 refugees from Darfur and Chad stuck in camps throughout the country's east.
If Chad's government falls, it will largely be due to France's new policy of neutrality. France has provided its former colony with logistical and intelligence support since the country's independence in 1960. A previous coup attempt by the same coalition of rebel groups in 2006 was turned back, after French Mirage jets fired warning shots at an approaching rebel column.
In a sign that times have changed, France has offered to help Chadian President Idriss Déby flee the country, an offer Mr. Déby pointedly refused.
France's major turnabout reflects both the hands-off philosophy of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and France's desire to lead a new European Union humanitarian peacekeeping force of troops of 3,700 men (2,100 of them French soldiers) to protect aid convoys to Darfur refugees living in Chad. The EUFOR mission would be the largest common defense mission in European Union history.
France 'not involved' yet
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has placed his credibility on the line for the Darfur protection force, said France is "on the side" of the legally elected government in Chad but at the same time would not get in the middle of two opposing Chadian factions.
"We are not involved in this war," Kouchner said. "For the moment there is no change, but if there is a Security Council resolution, if there is another suggestion from the African Union meeting, we will see" about intervening unilaterally.
The UN Security Council on Monday condemned the rebel attack and gave a green light for France and other countries to help the government repel the rebel force. At press time, it was unclear what specific actions France was prepared to take, but the surprisingly swift advance of rebels from the borderlands of Darfur straight up to the steps of the presidential palace have shown just how vulnerable Chad's government is, and how dependent Déby has become on French military support.
The ramifications could also affect the chances for peace in Darfur itself.
From the moment France decided to lead a neutral European Union peacekeeping force in Chad, it lost its ability to act unilaterally to shore up the Déby government, experts say.
"The deployment of EUFOR in Chad was already under strain from its conception to its agreement," says Alastair Cameron, head of the European program at the Royal United Services Institute, Britain's official military think tank in London. "They had to convince their European partners the mission was not going to be an extension of French foreign policy. It would have been a strategic faux pas if the French had backed up the government."
Rebels now more organized