France bound by role in Africa
PARIS — France is coming to the rescue again, deploying soldiers in a former African colony to help stave off catastrophe — dirty work that Paris says it doesn't really want. France has its eyes on a dynamic new Africa that is producing jobs, not conflicts.
But the image of France as the gendarme of Africa is hard to erase. French troops deployed to deal with the deadly chaos in Central African Republic just as about 40 leaders from Africa, including the republic's transitional prime minister, met in Paris on Friday and Saturday.
The summit made progress toward establishing a French-trained African rapid reaction force to enable the continent to meet its own security needs — while allowing France to maintain ties to the region that may pay off economically in the longer term.
France's idea of itself as a one-time colonial master cannot be easily shaken. The French empire unraveled in the 1960s, but a half-century later, African leaders routinely call for help and are not often ignored.
Since 2011, under two presidents from opposing political camps, France has intervened in four African countries: in Ivory Coast, on a joint mission in Libya, in Mali, and now Central African Republic.
In January, France sent in 5,000 troops to Mali to quash al-Qaida and other radicals in the north viewed as a terrorist threat to countries across the region. That dwarfs the mission in Central African Republic, where President Francois Hollande says 1,600 French troops will help about 6,000 African troops secure the nearly lawless country, where sectarian strife has grown after Muslim rebels ousted the president in March.
In both Mali and Central African Republic, Paris obtained African and international backing via the U.N. Security Council. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Saturday that he's “grateful to all the countries contributing with soldiers ... and in particular to France for boosting its military support.”
Yet Hollande does not want France to be the first — and sometimes only — responder in Africa. France tried during several months to not intervene in Central African Republic.
Hollande announced a push to change France's role as savior to assistant at an African Union summit in Ethiopia in May, saying it is Africans who must assure their own security. Many African officials agree on the concept, though details of the plan are still being worked out.
France is pushing for the AU's rapid reaction force to be put in place in coming months and promised at the weekend summit to provide equipment and train up to 20,000 African troops a year.
The United Nations would fund peacekeeping operations once it's fully operational. Until then, Hollande said, the European Union should pitch in money “because the two continents are linked.”
Hollande is not the first president to try to disassemble a heavy heritage or profit from a continent whose image is changing from one of endless conflict to a burgeoning hub for investment.