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Colonial Shadows

Diana Fong
February 12, 2008

After rebels were driven out of Chad in a bloody battle, France, which had been seeking a neutral role in the volatile region, reverted to its traditional post-colonial policy of supporting an African dictator.

French defense minister Herve Morin with Chad president Deby
French Defense Minister Morin supported Chad's president after a rebel crackdownImage: AP

Since he was elected in May last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to break away from the embarrassing old habit of propping up autocratic and corrupt ex-colonial regimes in Africa.

But Sarkozy broke his promise last week after a brutal rebel attack in N'Djamena that left scores of civilians dead and forced tens of thousands to flee the Chadian capital.

The French government came down on the side of Chad's strongman Idriss Deby, who rose to power in a 1990 coup that had the blessing of Sarkozy's predecessors, leading observers to concluded that the more things change in France's traditional Africa policy, the more they remain the same.

France ruled by national interests

Darfur refugees outside makeshift shelters
France has been pushing for an EU mission to stabilize Chad's border with DarfurImage: AP

That policy, called Francafrique, meant serving France's strategic and commercial interests by continuing to exercise post-colonial influence through African rulers.

Although Francafrique policy also meant supporting development in Chad, Togo and other French-speaking African nations, aid money often disappeared into the coffers of repressive dictators and their military backers, supporting one of the world's most corrupt regimes and bleeding their impoverished countries dry.

Antoine Glaser, the African affairs editor of the French newsletter "La Lettre du Continent" said that France's Africa policy is a huge battleship of bad habits that can be neither turned around nor torpedoed overnight. Furthermore, he said, France's influence over the Deby regime is waning.

"The reality is that the French have less real influence in central Africa than ever before," said Glaser.

Glaser added that France would have evacuated Deby when the rebels stormed the presidential palace 10 days ago, but the Chadian president refused the offer and drove the opposition out with government troops. Deby's intransigency and the strength of the resistance took the French leadership by surprise, said Glaser.

No political middle ground in Chad

Soldiers patrol streets of Chadian capital N'Djamena
France underestimated the Deby regime's resistance to rebel and opposition groupsImage: AP

"The French completely underestimated the backing for Deby and thought the rebels would overrun the palace," he said. "Once Deby won, France had to decide either to fully support him or not at all. In Chad, there is no middle ground. You are either in or you are out."

Only days before the rebel attack, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said that France would maintain "neutrality" in the central African country, which borders the Sudanese crisis region of Darfur, where refugees have been fleeing ethnic wars.

France was even ready to see Deby go but was surprised by his tenacity at holding on to power, said Alex de Waal, a program director specializing in African issues at the Social Science Research Council in New York.

"Now the French government sees no alternative to supporting a despotic dictator, since the opposition is viewed as destabilizing," said de Waal.

A European Union force, made up largely of French troops and intended to stabilize Chad's eastern border with Darfur, however, has been delayed due to rebel violence. The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Sunday, Feb. 10, that deployment would be resumed in the next few days.

EU allies question French motives

French nationals and other foreigners are evacuated by the French army from N'Djamena, Chad, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008.
France evacuated foreign nationals from Chad's capital at the beginning of FebruaryImage: AP

But now that Paris has taken Deby's side, France's European partners, who had already been lukewarm about the operation, are getting cold feet.

"The EU would have no choice but to support France, which supports Deby," said de Waal. "Peacekeeping is a wonderful principle to protect African civilians, but it only works if the EU commits troops who are willing to fight and get killed."

Analysts say that neither the Germans nor the British are committing troops to the EU operation, partly because they suspect that France is using the EU umbrella to promote French national interests.

The appointment of Irishman Pat Nash as the mission's commander-in-chief was not enough to convince Germany to participate in a conflict dominated by the French, said Dirk Kohnert, an Africa expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.

"The French have an altruistic side, but also a very egotistical side," said Kohnert. "France wants to be a global player outside of the EU context."

Better uses of declining influence

French aid workers in handcuffs awaiting sentencing
Critics say Deby offer to pardon French aid workers is tied to France's political supportImage: AP

France also wants to protect its export market in luxury consumer goods targeted at an extravagant African elite and French commercial interests in trading commodities, he added.

Chad is rich in gold, uranium and in recent years has also tapped reserves that make it an oil-exporting nation, but the French, unlike the American ExxonMobil consortium, currently have virtually no oil interests in the region.

Marielle Debos, a Chad specialist at France's elite university Sciences Po, however, played down the importance of economic ties.

"France wants to maintain strategic and military influence in central Africa, but there are no truly good reasons for French interventionist policies in central Africa," said Debos.

She said France could have used its influence to play a more constructive role in Chad by promoting national dialogue and addressing the root causes of the current conflict.

Olivier Thimonier, who is a spokesman for Survie, a NGO that is lobbying for more democracy and human rights in Africa, added that civil opposition leaders, who were unarmed and arrested during the rebellion, should be released.

"If France can intervene on behalf of Deby, it can also intervene to promote a more open political system," he said. "Things are quiet in Chad at the moment, but there is still unrest and anti-French sentiment below the surface. Over the long term, the solution to conflict must be political engagement, not military suppression."