After proclaiming its neutrality over the past few days, France has decided it has the right to intervene to back up the government of President Idriss Déby against thousands of Chadian rebels hovering around the capital city of N'Djamena.
France's about-face came after the UN Security Council told France it had the right to intervene if it felt it was necessary. On Tuesday, President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that France would "do its duty" to support the "legitimately elected" government if it was necessary to do so. French Defense Minister Hervé Morin described the decision as a "sword of Damocles" over the rebel forces surrounding N'Djamena.
In any case, Mr. Morin added, the rebels appear to be retreating. "Every day and even every hour that passes shows [Mr. Deby] regaining control of the whole country," Morin told French radio.
Given what is at stake in Chad – a $300 million humanitarian aid operation to look after some 400,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur region and from Chad itself – the swiftness of the UN's decision to intervene may come as no surprise. But it is a staggering decision nonetheless, intervening in a sovereign country's internal affairs, and could have implications that extend far outside of Chad and into the neighboring conflict in Darfur itself.
Bastian Giegerich, a research fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies in London, says the swiftness of the UN decision "is a sign that this is much more complex than Chad politics. There is a French-backed relief mission in Chad that leads to Darfur, and the imminent deployment of the European Force, and the timing of the rebel attack seems to explain a lot of the swiftness of the decision."
In N'Djamena itself, a second day of peace allowed civilians to cross the border into Cameroon by the thousands on Tuesday. Rebel spokesman Henchi Ordjo told reporters that the rebels had retreated from the city to allow civilians to depart, and said they were ready for dialog on the condition that Déby steps down. The rebels – a coalition of three separate militant groups based in Sudan's Darfur region – say that Deby's government is corrupt and dictatorial.
If France does intervene to back up Déby's government, the move could erode European support for the French-led European Force (EUFOR) deployment of 3,700 European troops to protect refugees and aid workers in Eastern Chad. Some European partners, notably Austria and Sweden, have voiced strong reservations about contributing troops to a mission that might simply be an arm of French foreign policy.
"If the French government gets militarily involved in backing up Déby, some European nations like Austria will revise their commitment to contribute forces to EUFOR," says Paul Simon Handy, head of African security programs at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
Mr. Handy argues that the proposed goal of the EUFOR in eastern Chad is to protect Darfur refugees, Chadian displaced people, and aid workers from attack. Those attacks don't come from Chadian rebels, Handy says, but from criminals. French intervention won't solve that problem, he says, and it might create others, including the undermining of EUFOR's neutrality.