Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is pulling his troops out of the Chadian capital, N'Djamena. Whether the Libyans are going all the way home has yet to be determined. But it certainly looks as if the French policy of strengthening Chadian President Goukhouni Woddei's hand so he can stand up to the Libyans is paying off.
It could also mean the end of yet another of Colonel Qaddafi's dreams to increase his influence and prestige by uniting with one of his neighbors - and even with more distant lands. He has tried and failed with both Egypt and Tunisia. A more recently proposed merger with Syria languishes as a fading hope. Now his apparent aim of absorbing Chad may well have been thwarted.
There are 10,000 Libyan troops in Chad. They were invited in by President Woddei last year to help him win the civil war he was waging against the forces of his one-time defense minister, Hissein Habre. The problem for the Chadian President thereafter was how to get the Libyans out.
He was much helped by Socialist President Mitterrand's rise to power in France this year. Mr. Mitterrand immediately set about orchestrating the main currents in which Chad is politically and geographically caught so that they operated against Libya and in favor of Mr. Woddei.
These currents are: France itself (once the colonial power in Chad), Africa, and the Arab world.
To secure African support, Mr. Mitterrand was careful to court the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The OAU was suspicious of his predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, believing his approach to Africa was too "imperial."
Mr. Mitterrand quickly began tilting French policies a few degrees in the direction of African nationalist causes. He mended fences with Nigeria, which was often at loggerheads with France in the 1960s and 1970s. And he threw France's full support behind the OAU plan to organize an African peace-keeping force for Chad, aimed at making Libyan withdrawal possible without a resumption of the civil strife.
Mr. Mitterrand has been helped by the desire of Nigeria and Kenya to prove that it is capable of effective action in dealing with the continent's major problems.
Nigeria and Kenya urged the OAU to accept French help in putting together the proposed peace force. France is well placed for this because it has troops and bases in the Central African Republic.
All this tended to box Colonel Qaddafi in, for he is due to assume the presidency of the OAU next year. With that ahead, he could hardly allow himself to be seen flouting what the OAU heavyweights wanted.
The plan is to have the OAU force deployed in Chad by the end of next month. But if Libyan troops are on their way out - in response to a request from Woddei to the Libyan leader last week - there may be a need to get the force into Chad quicker.
As for the Arab current that sweeps into Chad, Mr. Mitterrand operated mainly through Algeria. Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid has become increasingly uneasy about some of Colonel Qaddafi's pretensions. Libyan aims along the southern Sahara could threaten Algerian interests. And a border dispute is brewing between the two.
Under Mitterrand, France has a more friendly policy toward Algeria than under Giscard. .
France's direct contribution to the strengthening of President Woddei's position includes both limited economic help and, more recently, military help in the form of weaponry.
This week, at a conference of 30 African states in Paris, Mitterrand promised Chad unconditional help.
The question still to be answered: Will the apparent Libyan withdrawal from Chad, now under way at least from the capital be total and complete.