Why French lawmakers want troops to stay in distant Central African Republic

Moral concerns appear to have outweighed public disapproval of the deployment in the national assembly's vote Tuesday.

Camille Lepage/Reuters
Men carry goods at a camp for displaced people at M'poko International Airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Feb. 26, 2014. The UN says 2.2 million people there are in need of humanitarian aid.

Even as the United States weighs withdrawing all its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, France’s national assembly agreed Tuesday to extend a more modest military mission in Central African Republic that has become increasingly unpopular here. 

Critics say President François Hollande has underestimated the challenges in the troubled country and has no exit strategy for the 1,600 French troops on the ground. Their deployment, dubbed Operation “Sangaris,” the name of a Central African butterfly with a short life span, was due to end in April.  

However, French lawmakers moved beyond politics – approving the extension by 428 to 14 votes in the lower house – by focusing on the nation's moral responsibility, not just because CAR is a former colony but because it faces the prospect of genocide, 20 years after the Rwandan massacre that still haunts the global community.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reminded the nation of that responsibility ahead of the vote Tuesday. "If Operation Sangaris had not been launched there would have been genocide in the Central African Republic," he said on France 2 television. "The French were right to intervene.”

Those words were bolstered by appeals from the United Nations, which has warned that thousands of innocent civilians risk death, in a spiral of sectarian violence between Christian militias, called anti-Balaka, and mostly Muslim rebels. Tensions spiked after the government was overthrown by those rebels in March last year. Thousands have been killed and the UN says 2.2 million people, or half the population, are in need of humanitarian aid.

A volatile situation

France deployed 1,600 soldiers to CAR in early December, under a UN mandate to help disband militias. While it quickly helped stabilize the conflict in the capital, Bangui, the situation remains volatile.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said this week that more than15,000 people in the northwest and southwest of the country are surrounded and threatened by armed groups.

“These populations are at very high risk of attack and urgently need better security,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said. “Although violence has hit all communities in CAR, most of the people who are trapped are Muslims under threat from anti-Balaka militiamen.”

France has frequently intervened in its former African colonies since the 1960s, earning it the reputation as the “gendarme” of Africa. In January 2013, President Hollande dispatched troops to Mali to root out an insurgency. That move was widely popular in France.  

The intervention in CAR has been less so, in part because of its distance from the European continent. But lingering memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which the French have been blamed for exacerbating, have resonated in the current debate, impacting France’s decision to stay in CAR. This is despite a poll published Tuesday showing 58 percent of French disapproving of the military action there.

In France, the parliament must approve of any military intervention abroad that lasts beyond four months.  

The European Union has also agreed to send 1,000 troops to bolster French troops and African peacekeepers on the ground in CAR, but details are scant. The EU is scheduled to meet Feb. 27 in Brussels to discuss the deployment. 

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