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.
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While France argues that its neutrality is necessary to preserving the integrity of the humanitarian EUFOR mission – designed to protect aid workers and supply convoys to the volatile Chadian border with Darfur – John Prendergast, an expert on Darfur and co-chair of the Enough Project in Washington, argues that France misjudged Chad's ability to defend itself. "I think the French were overconfident, and they underestimated the capacity of the Chadian rebels because of their past experience.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Chadian rebels learned a lesson from last time, they needed communications and force requirements in order to take the capital," says Prendergast. "Sudan wouldn't let them repeat the mistakes. They gave them equipment, training, and bases inside Sudan to prepare."
French officials have made it clear they believe Sudan is supporting the rebels. Claude Guéant, the top policy adviser to Mr. Sarkozy, accused Sudan of trying to "liquidate" the Déby government.
Sarkozy has banked his reputation on EUFOR as a sign that France intends to work in partnership with EU nations rather than to pursue its own unilateral – and some would argue colonialist – policies among its former colonies in Africa.
During negotiations with EU members, Sarkozy emphasized that France would not use EUFOR as an extension of its past policy of shoring up the Déby government, as Sudan and rebel groups have claimed.
French Defense Minister Hervé Morin said Monday that EUFOR is needed more than ever, and that France remains committed to it although its immediate priority in the region is the evacuation of French citizens.
Throughout the decades that followed Chad's independence, it stayed involved both militarily and politically. While France has been somewhat more subtle in its meddling, it took a keen interest under former President Jacques Chirac in backing its favored leaders. In the 2006 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Paris openly supported Laurent Kabila. In Togo, it made clear its preference for the son of Gnassingbé Eyadéma in the violent 2005 election.
Sarkozy has pointedly broken from Chirac's policies and has said any use of military force would only be in the context of multinational aid and peacekeeping efforts. But the situation in Chad puts those promises to a tough test.
While French officials themselves admit that Sudan is taking advantage of Déby's weakness by supporting Chad's rebels, Paul Simon Handy, an expert on Chad at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, says that "France's relationship with Chad is very clear. Its interests are with Chad, whoever governs her." At the same time, while France will no longer influence who rules Chad, "its capacity to affect Chad is enormous, and will continue to be so. So any new regime in N'Djamena will have to cooperate with France."
France's elite "Sparrowhawk" forces, normally consisting of 1,250 military personnel but augmented over the weekend by an additional 150 soldiers, in Chad have moved to secure the airport in the Chadian capital and aid in the evacuation of French nationals. They are providing intelligence and logistical support, according to French officials.
"French action is aimed at avoiding a bloodbath," said Mr. Morin, adding that France is looking for UN help in defusing the situation.
But, he added, "for the moment, no one wishes to negotiate, neither [Déby] nor the rebels."
On Sunday, France removed its six Mirage F1 fighter jets that had been stationed at N'Djamena to keep them out of the fray and line of fire.