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.

Cedric Joubert/AP
His approach: President Nicolas Sarkozy steers France away from colonialist policies.

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.

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

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.

"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.

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