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The recent decision by France to send over 800 soldiers to help stabilize the failed state of Central African Republic (CAR) and stop a transnational conflict is a laudable one. This decision reinforces a growing pattern in France foreign policy in Africa. In Cote d’Ivoire, France’s right-wing President Nicholas Sarkozy spearheaded the UN efforts to oust Laurent Gbagbo and instate Alasane Dramane Ouattara, the alleged winner of the presidential elections. Then followed the military campaign against Muammar Khadafi in Libya. But while these two campaigns were controversial among Africans, the recent interventions led by Socialist President Francois Hollande to save Mali and now to restore hope and stability in CAR were greeted with praise. Previously infamous for using force to defend authoritarian regimes in French-speaking African countries, today’s France seems to be using force to restore stability and the rule of law.

No other African country better captures the changing paradigm of French interventions than Central African Republic. On September 20th, 1979 the French launched operation Caban to support the coup d’état against Emperor Bokassa and to put in place President David Dacko (who himself had been deposed in a coup led by Bokassa in 1966). The operation Caban was then followed by “operation Barracuda” to secure the newly instated president Dacko.

That was a peculiar time in the history of CAR and the region, when French politicians prided themselves that nothing could happen in their “African backyard” without their knowledge or influence. African politicians were likewise convinced of the omnipotence of this “former” colonial power. This conviction fueled the notoriously named “suitcase diplomacy”– African leaders using “carriers” to deliver suitcases full of cash or diamonds to some French political elite. Many things have changed since then — the end of Cold War, the emergence of powerful state actors competing with France in the region, internal political dynamics in both France and Africa, etc. — and France’s policy in the region is adapting to this new reality.

The decision to send 800 French soldiers to CAR to complement the 400 already present aims primarily at supporting the African mission to stop the cycle of violence, facilitate the return of humanitarian organizations, and create a secure environment until the full deployment of the UN mission to CAR. With this intervention following the one in Mali, France is gradually sketching a template of intervention in African conflicts. This nascent strategy follows four major steps:

  1. A concerted diplomatic effort to rally the international community, the UN Security Council and countries on the frontline of a given conflict, with the goal of building legitimacy and legality.
  2. Deployment of a military force acting as a transitional force to stop violence, protect civilians and create a secure space for humanitarian interventions.
  3. Collaboration with regional forces, generally supported by the African Union (AU), to prepare the transition to and deployment of the joint AU/UN peacekeeping force.
  4. Continued presence of a residual force, depending on the theater of operations, to deter hostile groups, fights terrorist activities and/or train the national army.

We have seen this holistic strategy played out in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and now CAR. As coherent as the strategy may appear, it is however not without its flaws. As seen in Mali, although the concerted diplomatic efforts yielded some form of legitimacy and the military intervention prevented Islamist groups to seize Bamako, the collaboration with the AU/UN forces and the continued presence of a residual French force are raising hard questions and generating adverse consequences: notably the resurgence of nationalistic and anti-French sentiments and local alliances with terrorists groups. In other words, the gains generated in Mali by steps 1 and 2 of the French intervention strategy are threatened by the challenges posed by steps 3 and 4.

In CAR, while it is still too early to discuss steps 3 and 4 of the French intervention strategy, we can already estimate the price tag of steps 1 and 2. While the international community negotiated ways to intervene, thousands of people were slaughtered and the country descended into chaos. Today, intervention may already be too late for the hundreds of thousands of victims of the conflict, such as state prosecutor Modeste Martineau, who was killed on November 16, 2013.

What about military deployment in CAR? The day after France announced its troop deployment, the former Seleka forces responsible for terrorizing the population began pulling out of Bangui for an unknown destination; the hope is that even the pro-Bozizé (deposed president) groups, the anti-balakas will follow that example. If this retreat can be seen as a good sign for the local population who will not have to endure more terror, it is a bad sign for the stability of the region. The dense forest and uncontrolled borders of the region offer plenty of hideouts for these dangerous thugs. These armed groups will most likely roam forests and nearby towns and villages, wreaking havoc and selling their skills to the highest bidder, as was the case during conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire. The short-term relief that will be brought by the French intervention may be a precursor of the middle- or longer-term instability to come. There are chances of seeing in months to come, intensification of criminal activities in border town and cities of the region.

Of course, no strategy is flawless, particularly given the complexity of armed conflicts. While it may be too early to draw conclusions, the situations in Mali and CAR are yielding valuable lessons that could help improve this nascent French intervention strategy on the continent.

Genuine collaboration with local stakeholders. If there is a genuine collaboration between French forces, regional forces, and the legitimate political authorities emerging from some sort of consultation or election process, this strategy will go a long way. This collaboration must be based on mutual respect and learning, recognizing the added value of each partner.  The example of the recent hostage crisis management in Mali, during which local authorities were kept out of the loop, is not the way to go. There is indeed the temptation for the French forces to take for granted the loyalty and gratitude of local authorities and populations. It will be a mistake. France should remember that their mere presence reminds local authorities and countries in the region of their own failure, so no need to add insult to injury by ignoring their help and refusing to involve them in operations taken place in their own country.

All actors think regional and act local. This sounds like an old cliche, but it could not be more relevant in this case.  Most situations these interventions are supposed to address require a regional approach that goes beyond the original theater of operations. These conflicts are part of conflict systems that engulf not only the ground zero of the crisis but also countries in the front-line. Therefore any intervention should take into consideration factors such as regional political alliances, transnational ethnic dynamics, religion and cross border issues.

Africans to increase regional military and diplomatic cooperation. As unfortunate as these crises maybe, French interventions offer African armies the opportunity to work together, harmonize their operations and develop joint strategies and operations to deal with increasingly complex and transnational crises that affect several countries in the region. They will have to learn work together on both military and diplomatic fronts to mitigate the adverse effects of these French interventions while at the same time leveraging them to strengthen their own capabilities, such as the long overdue African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC)  and the African Stand by Force.

It is worth mentioning that, if France is adapting its intervention strategy, it does not mean that it has tempered or changed its perception on Africa.  Many in the business and political community in France still consider French speaking Africa as” France’s backyard.” The history of relations between France and French speaking Africa teaches us that interventions are not altruistic or cost free for Africans. In the past, these interventions have helped France’s interests in the region; there are no reasons to believe the contrary today. This fact is confirmed by a series of report funded by the French government, all of which argue for the key role Africa will play in the prosperity of France;” this is clearly illustrated by the title of the recent French Senate report: “Africa is our future.”

Therefore, African countries cannot cheer-lead their way out of the crises facing the region, they should do more to actively engage and assist.  These French interventions may not mark the return of the colonial cop; however, they are signs of a turning point in the relations between France and Francophone Africa. Will African states and the African Union seize the moment and bend the arc of these relations toward cooperation, peace and security as claimed by France or towards neo-colonialism as suspected by skeptics? Qui vivra, verra!

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