President Francois Hollande has paid a brief visit to CAR as France winds down a peacekeeping mission in the conflict-ravaged country. From there he travels to Nigeria for a summit that will focus on fighting Boko Haram.
Three years ago, France deployed some 2,000 soldiers to quell the conflict in Central African Republic (CAR). The French mission known as "Operation Sangaris" has now been downsized to 650 men. In 2014, French troops were accused of sexual misconduct in CAR. Despite President Hollande's pledge to follow up the allegations, no action was taken. This is unlikely to change as a result of Friday's brief visit, says Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies based in Paris. In an interview with DW, he says France is more interested in aiding CAR's economic recovery and empowering the leadership of the new president, Faustin Archange Touadera.
DW: What interests does France have in Central African Republic?
Roland Marchal: The visit of Francois Hollande to Bangui is the first of its kind after President Archange Touadera's election, although they have met twice in Paris. For President Hollande, it will be a way to legitimize or explain the departure of French forces and make a number of commitments related to economic reconstruction, though we may believe that will be mostly indirect, through the European Union and through the influence France has on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
France has downsized its forces in CAR from 2,000 to 650. Are France's military interests fading or is it a positive sign that CAR is recovering from the conflict?
Concerning the size of French forces in CAR, the first thing to remember is that when President Hollande launched Operation Sangaris, he claimed that the operation wouldn't last more than a few months - but it lasted nearly three years. The French have been adamant about closing the operation for quite some time, and that explains why the elections were such a high priority for France. On the other hand, we could say there are no strategic military interests in CAR anymore because France is already present in Chad. Also, there's a big military base in Gabon, a country that has quite a large French community. So France was in CAR mainly because of the crisis, but now the security situation is settled to an extent that the forces can leave.
French forces taking part in peacekeeping missions have been accused of sexually abusing young boys. Do you see the French president taking action as he promised?
The French president may mention the issue of sexual abuses, but he will certainly make two important points. Firstly, it is an issue that recurs in all peacekeeping operations, whatever nationality is involved. And secondly, concerning the French soldiers, it is now an issue for the French judicial system. It is no longer in the hands of the executive body. It is now up to the investigation to provide the evidence and bring the perpetrators to court.
Francois Hollande is also visiting Nigeria, in a bid to strengthen military ties for both countries to fight Boko Haram. How significant is this cooperation?
France has already played a significant role, though it is not publicly seen. The main items have been intelligence-sharing and financial support. France has been arguing in Brussels to trim down the Peace Facility Fund that was used 100 percent to fund AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia). As you may know, since January 2016, AMISOM is no longer funded fully by the EU. So only 80 percent goes to AMISOM, and 20 percent are supposed to be redirected to fund regional forces fighting against Boko Haram.
What is France getting from this new cooperation?
I don't believe it is really an issue of gaining from Nigeria. France does have very strong interests in Nigeria, but it is also present in other countries that are part of this coalition. But Nigeria is the African country where French direct investment is the most important, despite it not being a French-speaking nation. Of course, France wants to keep these very warm economic links, and I am convinced that on the sidelines of the anti-terrorism meeting, President Hollande will also try to push issues related to the economic arena.
We now have the US administration, the French government and the regional coalition teaming up to fight Boko Haram. Can we say that this is the way to end the Boko Haram insurgency?
(Laughs) That is the expectation that many would have, but I would simply doubt it's the way to defeat Boko Haram. Remember the team-up in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Syria and Somalia and look at the results. We are in the situation where the military dimension is seen as the only policy in town. But as we have learned from other cases, we could win all battles and lose the war. So it would be better to have a more comprehensive approach and start discussing other aspects, not only the military or counterterrorism aspects.
Roland Marchal is a senior research fellow at the National Center of Scientific Research, based at the Center for International Studies and Research, Paris.
Interview: Fred Muvunyi