An Italian student asked her French teacher recently if France was at war. She had just read the news about the Dec. 5 French intervention in troubled Central African Republic (CAR).
“War?” the teacher said, taken aback. “No, no,” he explained to his class of foreign pupils. “France intervenes regularly in Africa when there is trouble.”
It was the briefest of history lessons, but it shines light on the assumptions that the average Frenchman and -woman hold about their country's former colonial empire. France has regularly intervened in Africa since the 1960s, sometimes amid controversy and claims that it still sees itself as the "gendarme" of Africa, other times because of a sense of humanitarian duty – and because, quite simply, it's the only willing and capable force on the ground.
This is the case in CAR, where France deployed 1,600 soldiers earlier this month, under a United Nations mandate to help end a conflict that was sparked after Muslim rebels ousted the president in a coup in March. Since then, CAR has rapidly deteriorated into sectarian violence between the Christian majority and Muslims. Some 600 have died in less than two weeks.
But as French soldiers continue their tough task of disarming militias – and already two French soldiers have been killed – French President François Hollande is pushing his European Union partners for more help, beyond the logistics and humanitarian aid it has already provided. France wants fellow boots, both Europeans and capable African forces, working alongside it. It might get what it wants: on Tuesday French Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius told the lower house of parliament that other European troops, without saying which, would soon be in CAR.
France's long role in Africa
Requesting more help on this Africa mission – even as it intervened alone, as it did earlier this year in Mali – is part of a renewed push by France to “Europeanize” its Africa policy, which it began over 15 years ago but which had in recent years lost some momentum, says Paul Melly, an expert on EU policy toward Africa at the Chatham House in London. “It is really Hollande that has picked that up again,” he says.
France's colonial expansion in Africa began in the 17th century and lasted until the 1962 independence of Algeria. It intervened militarily in the continent 19 times between 1962 and 1995, says Mr. Melly. But in these decades, it carried baggage summed up in the term “françafrique,” used to describe an often shady tangle of political and business connections in France's interest.
Some claim those interests still persist. But relationships began to evolve markedly in the 1990s, as global attitudes about French “meddling” changed in Africa, France, and the outside world. The Rwanda genocide was also a turning point, leaving France scarred after French troops were accused of failing to prevent it, or worse. French officials began to argue in the 90s for more “normalized” relations with Africa, including a bigger role for the EU.
Today, France remains a dominant player, with 8,500 troops abroad, the vast majority stationed across Africa, according to the latest French Defense Ministry figures. It also maintains a sense of obligation that spans the political spectrum and allows France to maintain global authority in the region. France has intervened four times in Africa since 2011, in Ivory Coast and Libya under Hollande's right-wing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and this year under Hollande's own Socialist administration, in Mali and now Central African Republic.
The missions are something that the French public generally accepts, although support for the CAR intervention has dipped, according to a poll taken just two days after the young soldiers were killed. IFOP released a survey showing support for the French mission had fallen to 44 percent from 51 percent at the start of the campaign, which analysts say reflects both the distance of CAR from Europe as well as deflated expectations, after the government communicated that it would be a quick and easy mission.
Aline Leboeuf, a security expert at the French Institute for International Relations, says that France is often the best poised to respond to conflict in Africa because of language, in-country knowledge, and its physical presence. The mission in Mali saw the rapid deployment of 5,000 troops sent to root out Al Qaeda-linked rebels that pose a threat in the region. The decision was hailed across the international community. In CAR, France has maintained a military presence, even if just a few hundred soldiers, for 14 years.
But it now seeks more help from its European partners. In discussing CAR on French radio this weekend, Mr. Fabius called it a "big problem" that France is the only European nation with a strong enough military presence to intervene when conflict arises. This follows the publication of the defense “white book” in April that notes a “particular role for Africa” in national defense, but argues that Africa should be a key interest of the EU too.
Such burden-sharing comes at a time of defense cuts. France "has limited resources but is still capable of using them today, even if the EU is not supporting a mission" like in CAR, says Ms. Leboeuf. “The question is what will happen in ten years?”
The EU Council will also meet today to discuss defense integration in Europe, which France has been a leader in backing. It has called for the creation of an emergency fund for future interventions.
If Hollande is successful, he could get credit for ushering even more change in the French-African relationship.
Hollande is deeply unpopular at home amid economic stagnation and a perception that he fumbles along. But on foreign affairs, he's been viewed as both decisive and consultative – not just "barging" into Africa, says Melly, but talking to leaders and getting them on board.
After Mali, Melly says, Hollande opened space for Africa to plead for its help on CAR. “We could well end up with a situation in which [Hollande] comes to be seen as someone whose fundamentally transformed an important dimension of France's international relationship with Africa.”
Hurdles to overcome
The contribution of other European soldiers in CAR would set an example for deeper EU defense cooperation, but several realities limit the prospects of such integration.
Defense coordination is, no matter where the conflict lies, a tough sell: Despite the economics, it is hard to get countries to cede control of defense issues to a larger EU body, given widely divergent sensibilities. Germany, for example, has been one of the most cautious players in foreign policy since World War II, both reluctant to send troops to missions and hampered in its legal ability to do so.
On Africa, some in Europe have resented French insistence on participating in certain missions, says Antonin Tisseron, a research fellow with the Thomas More Institute. “Some have the sense that France is seeking to implicate European partners in order to reach French objectives,” he says.
And from the vantage of many African nations, their default is often France, says Mr. Tisseron, the country they know best.
“When there is a problem, they look to France,” he says. “The EU is not part of their culture. This is going to take time”