I was really surprised by France’s military intervention in Mali early in January this year, as I would never have expected that the French socialist government would be prepared to go it alone without being part of the African-led force that the UN’s Security Council had authorised in December of last year and which had been expected to intervene this autumn only. The more so given that François Hollande, the French president, had made it a point during his presidential campaign that, if he was elected, he would implement an early withdrawal of French combat troops from Afghanistan (which he did, as France’s last soldiers engaged in fighting operations left that country on 15 December 2012). This is why I had wrongly assumed that Mr Hollande would be less inclined than, say, his immediate predecessor to send French forces abroad to take part into military operations.
So how come we are now (Friday 6 December 2013) witnessing a repeat of the same scenario that unfolded earlier this year (UN resolution followed by a military intervention)? Leaving aside the question of whether France has the military clout to conduct simultaneously two major operations in Africa (as it still has a task force of about 3,000 troops in Mali as part of operation ‘Serval’), I am quite puzzled as to why the French government deems it to be in the nation’s interests to intervene again on that continent and, more specifically, in a country to which it granted independence more than 50 years ago.
There is no doubt that the Central African Republic has had a chequered past since its independence (as any outline of the country’s history will show) and that the situation appears to have deteriorated dramatically over the last few days, however I am a little surprised at France’s willingness to play the role of the gendarme in that country (even though it did so before, in 1979) given that, unlike what was the case in Mali, there should not be too large a French community in the Central African Republic as, on the admission of the French Foreign Ministry, trade links are not important between the two countries and not many French companies operate in the former colony (‘Les échanges commerciaux (52 M€) sont peu importants et les entreprises françaises peu nombreuses’).
Leaving aside the humanitarian imperative (which I absolutely do not deny), I concede that it is indeed in both France’s and Europe’s strategic interests not to let the situation slide into total chaos, as explained by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defence Minister, in an interview to the French newspaper Le Figaro, published on 25 November, as it could destabilise the whole region:
The humanitarian situation is dramatic. The country is a no-go area in a major strategic crossroads between three sensitive regions, Sahel, the region of Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa. It is a concern for our security, for that of the nearby countries and for that of Europe.
However, as was the case in Mali, I fear that other interests are at stake. More than two-thirds of the electricity of our neighbour (I live in Switzerland) is generated from nuclear power (80.4% according to Electricité de France) and Areva, the French company that is the number one player in the nuclear industry worldwide, even has a ‘site’ in the Central African Republic, at Bakouma, which was attacked by insurgents in June 2012 (see links below). In the case of Mali, the fear was that the Islamist insurgency might spread over to Niger, a country which supplies Areva with 3,000 tonnes of uranium, almost a third of the French company’s total output of 9,714 tonnes according to page 78 of its annual report 2012.
So when I heard the French president say last evening that France’s sole goal was to save lives (‘La France n’a pas d’autre objectif que de sauver des vies humaines.’), this was enough to convince me that there were ulterior motives behind this second French intervention in Africa this year. In the light of the three oil-related wars the USA and the UK have waged in the Middle East and in North Africa (Gulf War, Iraq War, Libya – the latter with France’s military involvement), I must say that I fear that we might be witnessing a remake of the nineteenth century’s scramble for the energy resources of the African continent. However, the cynic in me founds some consolation in France’s new military venture, in that, as a result of this intervention, we may avoid another series of massacres on the scale of what occurred in Burundi in 1993 and in Rwanda in 1994, whilst keeping in mind the non-intervention of the West in, say, Darfur or Syria.
Links (the last six to show that, as was the case with Libya – strange coincidence shall I say? -, the British press seems to support the intervention)
- Gunmen attack French uranium plant in Central African Republic, Radio France Internationale, 25 June 2012
- Areva reporte l’exploitation de l’uranium en Centrafrique, Radio France Internationale, 3 November 2011
- Central African Republic, Rocks for Crops – Agrominerals of sub-Saharan Africa by Peter van Straaten, University of Guelph, Canada
- Hollande « l’Africain » en gendarme d’un État fantôme, Le Figaro, 26 November 2013
- Le Drian: «La France a et gardera la première armée d’Europe», Le Figaro, 25 November 2013
- Afrique-France, Hollande en gendarme et VRP, l’Humanité, 5 December 2013
- Centrafrique : quel rôle pour l’armée française ?, l’Humanité, 6 December 2013
- Battling al-Qaeda in Africa: US and France: African allies/Africa’s Islamists, BBC, 6 December 2013 [although the article is not about the Central African Republic, I doubt that the date of publication is coincidental]
- On the brink of genocide: UN approves force to stop escalation of bloodshed in CAR, The Independent, 5 December 2013
- Central African Republic crisis: another French intervention?, BBC, 2 December 2013
- France’s new African war, The Economist, 28 November 2013
- Central African Republic ‘descending into chaos’ – UN, BBC, 26 November 2013
- Unspeakable horrors in a country on the verge of genocide, The Guardian, Friday 22 November 2013
Additions (10 Dec): two links to maps showing the French military presence in the region & to RT article
- Le dispositif militaire international dans la région, Le Figaro, 4 December 2013
- Les forces militaires françaises en Afrique, l’Humanité, 6 December 2013
- ‘France doesn’t want to be left out of new scramble for Africa’, Op-Edge, Russia Today, 6 December 2013