French foreign policy in Africa

The “related links” tab on this Spiegel article is split down the middle between other pieces detailing French military action in the Central African Republic and articles bemoaning Germany’s unwillingness to risk military intervention on an international stage. This split is fair, since the article on one hand lauds France as “Europe’s sole military force” (subtitled “Giving France respect where it is due”) and bemoans that Germans and other Europeans “prefer navel gazing to action.” [1] Moreover, the article is linked to in another article detailing some of the challenges faced by the German military in Afghanistan and its as-of-yet minimal role in Central Africa as a new Defense Minister takes office.

The first article does a pretty good job of detailing the reasons why the recent history of French foreign policy so fascinates me:

  • France was one of the driving forces behind the NATO intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi
  • Hollande was one of the loudest proponents of intervention of some sort against Assad’s government in Syria.
  • In January 2013, France used an invitation from the Malian Government and a delayed UN mandate to unilaterally conduct military action in Mali and expedite intervention from other African states.
  • In the past months, France has begun military intervention in the Central African Republic with the stated mission of preventing genocide.
  • Just this week it was reported that France is going to increase the size of military deployments in former colonies, saying that they intend to move to a regional counter-terrorism strategy in West Africa.

France is also encouraging other EU countries, Germany in particular, to contribute to these military ventures. So far Hollande has not had much success in this, though Germany is currently training Malian troops and is in the process of moving its main African troop-transport airbase from Senegal to Mali in order to react to potential threats more quickly.

In either case, French foreign policy since Hollande took office is a far cry from the stereotypical French opposition to any military intervention and subsequent creation of freedom fries.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defense Minister, has given two stated objectives to the most recent strategy developments:

  1. While running the risk of turning into Afghanistan 2.0 (with some of the same problems, but also some different ones), avoid the mistakes of Libya. This requires active and continued involvement of French troops in Africa rather than the distant and temporary military intervention and then letting the nation largely sort out its own problems.
  2. Change the paradigm from counter-terrorism within nations to a regional intervention.

One of the challenges of counter-terrorism is that the opponents are not only non-state entities, but they aspire to be non-state entities, meaning that they do not abide by borders that the counter-terrorist forces are at least supposed to acknowledge. During the French intervention in Mali, the al Qaeda-linked fighters slipped into the desert, often into the surrounding countries. If the French are successful in organizing a regional strategy with the prior cooperation of the nations in the region, they can bypass the issue of national sovereignty–and by having a pre-existing “intervention” in most of the countries, they can establish bases in a larger portion of the Sahel.

It is an ambitious foreign policy agenda in Africa. But in a region that has recently been destabilized by sectarian violence, coups, and multiple different groups of religious extremists, the project has a chance to pay dividends. The German authors suggest that the French people take a immense amount of pride in that their country still plays the role of a global superpower, which causes the collective eye-rolling in other Europeans (especially Germans). This statement may be a bit of a stretch, though Hollande certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered for catapulting France into this position.

The motivations for the main participants are pretty straightforward. France has economic interests throughout its former colonies (including its source of uranium) and so it makes sense to for it to intervene. The United States has little interest in intervention in Africa, but an active interest in curtailing al Qaeda-linked groups in the ongoing war on terror, so it makes sense for the US to support French action however it can. One of the question marks is how the former colonies perceive this strategic shift since it could be seen as a return of European colonialism. However, most of the coverage has indicated that the local populations do not want anything to do with radical Islam and the governments can gain regional stability and thus security from the presence of French troops.

Even though I am skeptical of military intervention as a solution for problems as entrenched as religious extremism and local violence, I am fascinated to watch this French endeavor unfold because it does seem to have been designed with care w/r/t the problems of modern counter-terrorism and be altruistic in as much as it is designed to prevent political instability in the region that threatens to create a situation comparable to Rwanda in 1994.[2] Economic and humanitarian aid will likely be necessary to stabilize the region, while military aid would provide a stop-gap measure since, as has been seen in Mali and elsewhere, the threats to the government and the local population go far beyond religious extremism and include ethnic divisions, multiple religions, corruption, and a-religious separatist groups.[3]

It is absolutely necessary to scrutinize this sort of action and the motivations of the parties involved, but I do believe that “first world” nations have a responsibility to help take care of other parts of the world. The critical question is how those nations help. Military intervention will probably be insufficient and it could well be that this action drags on a decade or more, but this is a much more efficient use of resources than were either of the recent US interventions. As far as this sort of action goes, this new French plan seems to be one of the better ones.

Of course, the really important thing about recent French politics is Hollande visiting his mistress on a scooter.


[1] The article also argues that the French are unwilling to conduct the economic reforms that the Germans have been pushing on the EU countries.
[2] There are economic motivations, too, of course, but this is a situation that there is enough of one that Hollande can try to intervene to prevent the image problem that would come with another African genocide.
[3] Despite a military strategy designed to circumnavigate the national borders, the West is still firmly committed to maintaining the existence of those borders.

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