Written by Hilary Barnes
The prestige of France’s president, Francois Hollande, was raised several notches by his rapid decision at the beginning of 2013 to send French troops to Mali to stop jihadistes from trying to take control of the country, a mission crowned with success.
But his latest, humanitarian, African intervention in the Central African Republic appears to be turning sour.
In France, General Vincent Desportes, former head of France’s military staff college, told AFP, the French news agency, that France must either withdraw its troops or send in significant reinforcements to bring the force up to five or six thousand. He said:
“If we do not, we shall be trying to use a glass of water to douse a house that’s on fire.”
In Mali, he said, the task was simple: to destroy the adversary. In the Central African Republic the task is to interpose itself between warring factions; the adversary is “disorder and chaos.”
To intervene between two parties in a civil war is more difficult than normal military operations, he said:
“It is only those who dream of a short, sharp war who could imagine that this is something that will take only a few days.”
In Paris newspaper Le Monde, dated December 27, Francois Heisbourg, of France’s Foundation for Strategic Research, took a similar line, saying that unless the French contingent achieves rapid success, “our troops should probably be reinforced.”
He regretted that France had plumped for “a national intervention” and not an intervention together with its European allies, who have all given their moral support to France, but have not volunteered to send troops.
With the support of the UN Security Council, France has sent 1,600 troops to act as support for an African Union force, Misca, that is endeavouring to keep the majority Christian population and the Muslims from slaughtering each other.
According to the Red Cross, the disturbances have already displaced over 600,000 people from their homes out of a total population of about 4.6m.
The conflict follows a coup in March, 2013, when President Michel Djotodia, a Moslem, ousted the former Christian president.
When he announced his decision to send French French troops to Central Africa earlier in December, Francois Hollande envisaged a brief intervention by which the the French force would be able to stabilise the situation and would then be able to withdraw.
So far, events do not seem to be following the president’s scenario, which “has gone off the rails”, as conservative newspaper Le Figaro said on December 26, opining that to be adequate to the task in hand the French force needed to be ten times its present size.
To start with, 1,600 troops are very thin on the ground in a country which is larger than France. A contingent has been sent to the northwest of the country to quell violence there, leaving the rest in the capital Bangui, with a population of over one million.
Here the key task is to ensure that the M’Poko airport is kept open and does not fall into the hands of one of the opposing factions. The remaining troops patrol areas of the city plagued by violence and try to calm things down.
The continued violence reported in Bangui in the past days reinforces Le Figaro‘s point:
“The French troops are in a more or less inextricable situation which could degenerate at any moment.”
A complicating factor is that the French troops, which do not take sides, are nevertheless regarded as pro-Christian by the Moslems, who have staged anti-French demonstrations.
Troops sent by neighbouring Chad, a staunch ally of France in the conflict in Mali, are regarded by the Christians as backing the Moslem president and his supporters. To date the troops from Chad, according to reports from Bangui, seem to have played an ambiguous and less than helpful role.
General Desportes, meanwhile, could not refrain from remarking to AFP on the irony of the fact that the only significant cuts in public spending implemented by the present government affect the Ministry of Defence and more especially “impose a veritable degradation of the conventional land forces that are essential to France’s foreign policy.”