UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
AFRICA: France tinkers with its African troop deployment
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
DAKAR, 30 Sep 2005 (IRIN) - Adjusting to new realities on the ground, France plans to re-deploy its thousands of African-based troops in a scheme it says will bolster the continent's own home-grown peacekeeping forces.
The French Defence Ministry said this month it would reshuffle the deployment of some 7,000 soldiers to fit in with the way the African Union (AU) has divided up the continent into geographical zones.
"This is a very important shift which corresponds to changes made by the Africans themselves, since the AU intends to organise itself into sub-regions," defence spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau told a press conference in Paris.
However, some analysts say that while the shift may deflect charges of neo-colonialism, France still has a long way to go before relinquishing a military toehold in Africa.
"France would never have been a big power in 1960 if it hadn't been for its presence in Africa," said Jean-Pierre Dozon, research director at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, referring to the year that saw colonies wrest their independence from France.
With French economic and military presence strong to this day across the continent, Paris, which has one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council, can traditionally count on a block of supporting votes at the United Nations.
But in recent years domestic distaste has risen over their presence in Africa, and military costs have grown as more French troops have been deployed to places like the Balkans.
In response, successive governments have cut back military contingents in Africa by a third in the last decade and soldiers are rotated more quickly than in the past.
Even today, more than 40 years after the independence struggles, losing influence in Africa means losing leverage on the world stage, according to Antoine Glaser, editor of the confidential Paris-based newsletter on Africa, La Lettre du Continent.
But France can no longer afford the presence it once enjoyed, he said.
Cote d'Ivoire stirs bad memories
With an annual price tag almost 200 million euros ($240 million), most of it shouldered by the French taxpayer, the former colonial power's operations in warring Cote d'Ivoire -- where some 4,000 troops work alongside UN peacekeepers -- have highlighted the financial burden of keeping a strong military presence in Africa.
"The proposed changes are meant to bring about substantial savings," Glaser said.
According to the authorities, the upcoming realignment is geared at boosting cooperation with the AU, which hopes to set up an African Standby Force (ASF) of up to 25,000 men able to carry out peacekeeping missions by 2010. The ASF would consist of five brigades, one for each sub-region, and would include police and civilian elements.
Recent events on the ground may also explain why France seems keen to disengage, analysts say.
The most serious incident occurred last November when French troops in Cote d'Ivoire were briefly dragged into the war there after coming under attack from government troops.
When nine of its peacekeepers were killed, France took out virtually the entire Ivorian air force but then had to rescue and help evacuate thousands of French nationals forced to flee ensuing anti-foreigner violence.
The troubles in Cote d'Ivoire stirred up painful memories of civilian evacuations from Algeria more than 40 years ago, EHESS research director Dozon told IRIN.
"The first instinct for the average French person was to ask 'What are we doing over there?'" he said. "People didn't want to relive that in 2004."
More generally, African populations, especially young people, have an increasingly negative view of any French military presence in their countries, according to Gilles Yabi, a West Africa analyst with the international think tank, Crisis Group.
"As long as there are permanent bases, the suspicion will be there that these troops serve to prop up administrations, which are friendly to the French but which are not necessarily democratic," Yabi told IRIN from his office in Dakar.
But with even the reshuffle, France is still the only former colonial power to have maintained permanent bases in Africa.
Analysts say this means France will remain uniquely qualified to supply rapid response support on a continent which, despite providing about 30 percent of UN forces worldwide, can still benefit from some peacekeeping know-how.
"AU forces still don't have all the necessary skills and resources to carry out difficult missions," Yabi said. "They need training and logistical support."
Outside intervention can provide key resources for non-UN peacekeeping missions, according to Mark Malan, head of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, which was opened in Accra in 2004 to increase the sub-region's ability to handle conflicts.
He pointed to Burundi, Liberia and Cote-d'Ivoire as examples of hotspots where a foreign power -- South Africa, the United States and France respectively -- played an essential role before the UN became involved.
"But who the ideal provider is? That's debatable," he told IRIN.
Dozon of the EHESS said the way forward was for the European Union to take over from France. He welcomed talk from the French of "Europeanising" bases by encouraging a greater presence of EU military personnel and non-governmental organisations.
By pooling resources with the EU, France would be able to save money and defend itself better against charges of neo-colonialism, he said.
Under the French plan, to be unveiled at December's Franco-African summit in Bamako, troops currently based in five French-speaking countries -- Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, Chad and Djibouti -- would be regrouped into three African bases that conform with three AU sub-regions, Senegal for West Africa, Gabon for Central Africa and Djibouti for Eastern Africa.
Soldiers stationed on the French island of Reunion, which lies in the Indian Ocean, would be lined up to work with the Southern Africa sub-region.
Thus troops currently based in Chad would operate out of Gabon and those serving alongside UN peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire would be withdrawn to Senegal once peace has returned.
French officials said the number of troops on the ground and existing defence agreements with individual countries would not be affected.
But Glaser, the editor of the Africa newsletter, said France was not relinquishing an inch of power.
"It's a change in political rhetoric but, for the time being, it doesn't change a thing on the ground," he said. "French President Jacques Chirac will continue to decide all alone on whether or not France intervenes in a given country."
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