Date: Saturday, 16 February 2019
PARIS — French airstrikes this month in support of Chad’s longtime autocratic ruler, Idriss Déby, have raised a familiar question: Has France really left behind decades of deep involvement in African politics?
France’s foreign minister this week defended the strikes against Chadian rebels before a handful of puzzled members of Parliament who wondered why the country was again propping up an ironhanded African dictator — albeit one whose relatively efficient military is considered vital in the fight against terrorists.
French officials have brushed aside these qualms, insisting that it was Mr. Déby himself who invited the French. The strikes took place between Feb. 3 and 6, destroying 20 rebel pickup trucks and stopping a rebel advance, the French military said in a statement.
French analysts have been sharply critical of the intervention in Chad.
“How can we convince the Europeans to have a decent policy in Africa, when we do this in Chad?” asked Roland Marchal, a leading expert on the country at Sciences Po university.
“France is promoting this discourse on jihadist movements, that they spring from bad governance and human rights violations. But if you look at Chad, you have exactly the same thing,” Mr. Marchal said. “With such good friends, why do you need enemies?”
Every French president for decades has repeatedly proclaimed the end of French interference in Africa, referred to with disdain by critics as “Francafrique,” a hydra-headed entanglement of commercial, military and political interests, with France pulling the strings.
President Emmanuel Macron is no exception. His government was outraged recently when Italy’s populist leaders mocked France for what they called the perpetuation of its colonial relationship with Africa.
France, Mr. Macron declared to bemused students in a landmark speech in Burkina Faso in 2017, “no longer has an Africa policy.”
He promised a grand reset of the tortured French-African relationship, set free by a youthful leader who was “part of a generation that has never known Africa as a colonized continent.”
Mr. Marchal called the president’s declaration naïve. Mr. Macron, he said, “thinks he is the new one and doesn’t need to look back. But, he has got to put on his shoulders the legacy of what France did in Africa.”
Both the French promise and French outrage belie a far murkier reality. France continues to keep a heavy hand in Africa, militarily and economically. Analysts said the recent Chad incursion, hardly the first time the French military has swooped in to rescue Mr. Déby, was a classic example.
French fighter planes repeatedly struck a rebel column deep in northern Chad, in the impoverished country’s semidesert northeast, stopping the rebels in their tracks. The planes, Mirage 2000s, took off from Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, where France’s 4,500-troop antiterrorism operation, code-named “Barkhane,” is headquartered.
The rebel column, roughly 50 pickup trucks belonging to the Union of Resistance Forces, a coalition of armed groups, had been headed toward Chad’s capital, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. The column, departing from lawless southern Libya, was intent on “destabilizing the country,” the French military said in a statement.
The column did not heed warnings and strikes from Chadian forces on Feb. 1 and 2, or those of the French Air Force on Feb. 3, the military’s statement added. And “there was a written request by the chief of state” to act, Mr. Le Drian told the committee.
Only a handful of voices in Parliament have been raised against the government’s argument, testament to the tacit acceptance of the France’s continued role in its former colonies.
One of the few lawmakers to criticize the government, a far-left deputy, Clementine Autain, told Mr. Le Drian: “It all seems like a pretext to give firmer support to Déby’s regime.” He added: “I’m astonished by this unconditional support for Déby, while you pass over in silence his authoritarian practices and his human rights violations.”
Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group, ranks Chad as “Not Free” and gives the country its lowest score for political rights. Chad ranks third from the bottom in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and economic well-being.
Inside Chad, where the fragile opposition speaks cautiously, there was frustration over French support for Mr. Déby.
“We doubt the legality of it. We think it was a political error. Barkhane’s mission is not to interfere in internal Chadian affairs,” Saleh Kebzabo, a longtime opposition leader, said in a telephone interview from his home in N’Djamena.
“Is the French position to maintain the government in place, even by force?” he asked. “Déby has imposed a dictatorship on us.”
A spokesman for the rebels, Youssouf Hamid, called the airstrikes an example of France’s “unconditional support for Déby” and dismissed their efficacy. “Sure, there was some material damage,” he said, “but this fight is not over.”
Mr. Marchal, the analyst, was skeptical of the argument that France had intervened only because Mr. Déby asked. A column of 50 pickups far from the capital could not have represented a mortal threat to a government with a capable army, he said.
The real reasons lie elsewhere, he said. “Déby is convinced that if he doesn’t have a clear signal that Paris is behind him, he could be in danger,” Mr. Marchal said.
As for the end of Francafrique, he and others said, the obituary is, as always, premature.