Thursday, January 16, 2014

François Hollande's effort to recast and revive France’s influence in Africa

The imagery is likely to be the same as it has been for decades 
writes, perhaps somewhat wearily, Alan Cowell in the New York Times
— foreign troops in battle fatigues lugging backpacks and assault rifles, confronting mayhem.

But when French soldiers reinforce their small existing garrison in the Central African Republic in coming weeks, their presence will probably be depicted as a departure from a long tradition of military muscle as the prime instrument of postcolonial power. 

The Central African Republic — its territory larger than metropolitan France, with only a small fraction of its population — has occupied an anomalous place since independence from Paris in 1960, ruled by a procession of despots and even an emperor — Bokassa I — who was accused not just of profligacy but of cannibalism, too. 

But in more recent weeks, it has become the newest focus of an effort by President François Hollande to recast and revive his nation’s influence on a continent where its erstwhile clout has been challenged by the growing ascendancy of China and others eyeing Africa’s natural resources from oil to diamonds.

 … “The challenge of this intervention,” wrote Pierre Haski, a co-founder of the Rue89 news website, “lies in the ‘return’ of France to the dark continent after decades of interference followed by a period of relative indifference or misstatements.” 

“If France succeeds in its Central African mission, it will have recovered a good part of its influence,” he said, “positioning itself as an indispensable partner in those places where it risked becoming a vague memory.”

 … The Mali campaign at the beginning of the year drew France into a struggle against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well-financed and ideologically committed Islamist insurgents from the north pressed on the capital, Bamako, meeting no challenge from ineffective government forces. 

In the Central African Republic, by contrast, the overthrow in March of the previous government by rebel militias, many composed of Muslim fighters from Chad and Sudan, has precipitated growing lawlessness among rival warlords, raising the prospect of sectarian war spilling beyond its borders.
It is, of course, easier to deploy than to withdraw, as France discovered in Mali, where it still has 3,000 troops.