France in Central Africa: The reluctant interventionist

Why France did not want to be dragged into the conflict in the Central African Republic.

France deployed troops in CAR after violence erupted between rebel groups [AFP/Getty Images]

Two months after the beginning of military operation of French troops in the Central African Republic, it is time to debunk a few myths. France’s military intervention has raised eyebrows, both in and outside France, for reasons which, interestingly, are opposite. On the one hand, some African elites are, as usual, suspicious of France’s alleged sinister intentions and contend that France is a neocolonial power intervening in CAR to protect some mysterious – and largely undefined – political and economic interests.

But on the other side, opinion polls in France indicate that a majority of French citizens are opposed to France’s deployment in CAR precisely because they can’t figure out why France has got involved in the CAR conflict, given how little the country matters to France.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Let’s be clear: France has no economic positions or business interests to defend in CAR. Similarly, as opposed to Mali where the takeover of the country by Islamist militants would have presented France with a significant security challenge, France has no direct security or strategic interests to protect in CAR.

France has intervened in CAR because the ever deteriorating security situation was becoming a direct threat to the existence of CAR as a state.The collapse of CAR would have been a latent threat to regional stability in Central Africa by providing rebels and militants from neighbouring countries (Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, DRC, Uganda) with a safe haven right in the middle of the continent. There wouldn’t have been a single power in the world – whether western or eastern – rejoicing at such a horrific prospect.

Also having a 1,600-troop-force deployed in CAR is a financial burden that France would easily live without given its stretched finances. But France’s intervention testifies to the weakness of African regional organisations and to their political and military incapacity to handle large-scale security crises in the continent. Like in Mali, France had to intervene at the last minute, because African regional organisations, paralysed by leadership rivalries and lack of capability, proved unable to do the job effectively.

CAR: At a crossroads of conflict

France is sometimes accused of being biased in the CAR conflict, in favour of the Christian anti-balaka militias supported by former President Francois Bozize against the largely Muslim Seleka coalition. Those holding such views assert that French troops are much more determined at disarming Seleka fighters than they are at doing the same with the anti-balaka. This claim is slightly disingenuous.

One has to admit it has been easier to identify and disarm Seleka, a more formalised force made of fighters hanging around in their pickups with their machine guns and sleeping in military barracks, than the more elusive anti-balaka militias. It is worth reminding that when Seleka marched into Bangui and overthrew Bozize in March 2013, French troops in Bangui did not move, despite Bozize desperately calling Paris for help.

Has the French intervention been a success? Well, it was clearly too little, too late. French and African MISCA troops have finally managed to restore a degree of order in Bangui, though localised inter-community violence can flare up anytime. But persistent tensions in Bangui mean that most French troops have been forced to stay in the capital and have not been able to deploy to the countryside, as planned initially, and levels of violence in rural areas, committed either by the anti-balaka or Seleka, are just scary.

By its own admission[Fr], the French government clearly underestimated the difficulty of the task at hand in CAR. Unlike in Mali, where there was a clearly-identified enemy, there wasn’t anybody to fight against, and to disarm random groups of fighters in urban areas is not what a conventional army is usually prepared for. Clearly, French authorities had also overestimated the level of inter-religious animosity, as well as the rise of the anti-balaka.

So, as the French defence minister just said[Fr], French troops will probably have to stay for longer than their initial six-month mandate. The European Union (EU) has pledged to send 500 troops in support of France, but given its EU partners’ reluctance to commit troops, there is a significant chance that France will provide about half of the 500 fighters. In any case, the number of EU troops will be too small to have a major impact on the security situation.

The solution would probably be a United Nations’ peace-keeping operation, numbering about 10,000 troops. The African Union (AU) and Russia are opposed to this option – the AU wants to keep the upper hand on handling the crisis, and as a matter of principle, Russia hates international interference.

However, the UN operation option is likely to win, and a UN force will probably be deployed in about six months. It is not sure that such a deployment will make a significant impact, especially if the force comprises troops from faraway countries with feeble rules of engagement. But without such a force, here is the likely prospect for CAR in the medium term: A de-facto division of the country, with the government controlling Bangui and a few main provincial cities with the help of French and African troops, the west controlled by the anti-balaka and the north-east as Seleka’s rear base. There will be endless chaos. It is time for the international community to make a move.

Vincent Darracq is an Africa analyst. He works for various risk consultancies and think tanks, including the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI).