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France: new global policeman?

In December, France dispatched 1,600 troops to quell deadly sectarian violence in the Central African Republic. The deployment underscores France's increasing military involvement not only in Africa but around the world.

A French naval vessel docked in Douala, Cameroon. Light armored vehicles rolled off and sped toward the frontier of the Central African Republic. Parachutists already stationed in Cameroon and Gabon converged, by air, on Bangui. In a matter of hours, 1,600 French troops were inside the country and had at least temporarily halted fighting between Muslims and Christians, which had already claimed 400 lives.

On a mission green-lighted by the United Nations, France showcased again, just what it is capable of in Africa. London provided some logistical air support. But Paris is hoping that other European countries might play an active role in the future.

No more 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys'

The US can send in the Navy Seals to try and take out an Al-Qaida leader here, an al-Qaida leader there. But projecting military power into an explosive situation in Africa is something these days only France is prepared - and capable - of doing.

Christian militias are fighting Muslim forces in the Central African Republic, shown here a woman holds the hands of two children Photo: picture-alliance/AP

Christian militias are fighting Muslim forces in the Central African Republic

NChided as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" when they sat out the second Iraq War, the French now impress the Americans with their bold use of ground troops. The deployment in the Central African Republic, Operation Sangaris, named after a red butterfly, is France's 30th military intervention in West Africa since the break-up of the country's vast colonized African Empire in the early 1960s.

Successive French leaders have announced the end of "Francafrique," that cozy and often shady web of political, military, business and financial ties between France and its former West African colonies.

But France is getting more interventionist, not less so. In Africa, it has something no other country has - a network of permanent military bases. Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti and Reunion Island (which is actually a French territory).

In addition it has troops involved in two missions in Chad, fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia and keeping the peace in Ivory Coast. It also honors a number of military cooperation treaties with countries such as Togo and Cameroon, which also involve some French military presence. This makes it much easier to mount military operations in the region.

International approach to intervention

Despite the steady erosion of its defense budget, France has made four African military interventions in the last three years. Ivory Coast and Libya - with the British - in 2011. Mali and Central African Republic this year. And it's not just Africa.

A French solder aims his gun from behind a wall, French soldiers have intervened in various African conflicts, including Mali Photo: Reuters

French soldiers have intervened in various African conflicts, including Mali

Paris is also talking tough in the Middle East. Calling for air strikes in Syria and taking a hard line on the Iranian nuclear program. "Vive la France," tweeted Republican Senator John McCain after French negotiators refused to play Tehran's atomic "sucker's game."

If France has become the most interventionist Western military power as of late, this is largely due to the more timid stance of Britain and the United States, still licking their Iraqi and Afghan war wounds. Barack Obama would perhaps not say about his country what Francois Hollande said about his: "It is France's honor to intervene without the least hesitation wherever crimes against humanity are committed."

In the end, of course, France did not have the guts to go it alone and punish Bachar al-Assad for using chemical weapons when Britain and the US backed down. France is also starting to look over-stretched. Its Mali and Central African Republic commitments are likely to last longer than Paris would like.

A call for support

There is also the problem that - Iraq and Afghanistan-style - initial military success may not be as valuable as a satisfactory diplomatic result. In Libya, in particular, the Franco-British-backed toppling of Colonel Gaddafi has allowed the opening of a "black hole" of militias and jihadis, which French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says will be the next objective for international terrorism. And France will be on the front line.

French President, Francois Hollande, visits French troops in Central African Republic Photo: picture-alliance/AP

French President, Francois Hollande, visits French troops in Central African Republic

In the face of the rise of al-Qaida affiliated terrorists in the Sahara, France is now clearly in charge in an increasingly important zone. With precious little help from its European allies.

"The situation has become unbearable," says right-wing MP Pierre Lellouche, a former junior minister in charge of European Affairs. "We have become the de facto unpaid mercenaries of the EU countries."

Despite the budget cuts that have also affected the British armed forces, France, just behind the UK, remains above and beyond its European partners when it comes to defense spending. Pierre Lellouche is calling for the creation of a European fund to finance overseas operations such as the ones France is now engaged in alone in the heart of Africa.

Without this help, France's Central African Republic intervention, saluted by the UN and supported - in words - by all its allies, may not be the confirmation of France's new role as global policeman but its swansong.

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