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Dec 05, 2013

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Homeland Security News Wire

In March this year, rebel militias, many composed of Muslim fighters from Chad and Sudan, overthrew the government, a move which has resulted in spreading lawlessness among rival warlords, with the risk of the disintegration of the country and sectarian war spilling beyond the country’s borders distinct possibilities. As was the case in Mali earlier this year, France has decided to put its foot down, sending hundreds of troops to the capital Bangui to restore order and restrain the lawless rebels. “The challenge of this intervention [in the Central African Republic],” on analyst wrote, “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, positioning itself as an indispensable partner in those places where it risked becoming a vague memory.”

European soldiers in battle fatigues are not a new sight in Africa, but the hundreds of French soldiers arriving since Sunday as reinforcement to the small French military contingent in the Central African Republic may represent something new.

The New York Times reports that the Central African Republic, a country with a territory larger than metropolitan France but with a population of only 4.5 million, has gained its independence from France in 1960, and has been ruled by a procession of corrupt and brutal despots ever since. One of them, emperor Bokassa I was accused of cannibalism (he ruled the country from 1966 to 1979; the first eleven years as president, and the last two as self-proclaimed emperor).

Since March this year, as instability and unrest in the country have grown, President François Hollande has asserted France’s stabilizing role in the region in an effort not only to shore up his popularity at home, but also to balance the growing influence of China in central Africa.

Analysts note that the renewed French assertiveness on the continent is not an expression of French unilateralism. Rather, France has presented its growing role in Africa as drawing on international approval, and as a preparatory step toward devolving responsibility to African peace-keeping forces, as France has done in north Mali earlier this year.

“The challenge of this intervention,” wrote Pierre Haski, a co-founder of the Rue89 news Web site, “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 Times notes that a year ago, as yet another government in the Central African Republic was on the brink of collapse, Hollande refused requests from Bangui, the capital, for decisive military support, instead dispatching only a token force of around 400 to protect the small French community in the country and the international airport — an escape route for both government officials and French nationals.

Last week, however, France mobilized UN support for creating a militarily more meaningful force to intervene in the country, a force which would at the beginning of its deployment be led by a French contingent of about 1,000 soldiers.

Paul Melly, a researcher at the Chatham House policy institute in London, told the Times that the shift came after the French authorities “have seen in Mali that their intervention is welcome in a way it was not in the past.”

For one thing, Melly said in an interview, French interventionism was no longer designed to “prop up, install or depose” protégés as it was in the immediate postcolonial era. In the twenty-first century, he said, France had tended toward a more consultative approach, particularly since Hollande came to power. “The nature of the operations has changed,” he said, as has “the way Hollande has handled the diplomacy.” So, too, have the challenges.

The challenge France faced in Mali was posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates, and by well-financed and ideologically committed Islamist insurgents from the north who gained control over the northern part of Mali and then headed south toward the capital Bamako, with only ineffective Mali government forces standing in the way of a complete Islamist take-over of Mali.

In the Central African Republic, rebel militias, many composed of Muslim fighters from Chad and Sudan, overthrew the government in March, a move which has resulted in spreading lawlessness among rival warlords, with the risk of the disintegration of the country and sectarian war spilling beyond the country’s borders distinct possibilities.

In the nascent Central Africa Republic campaign, “the French gamble is hazardous,” Haski wrote, based on the principle “that the appearance of these European soldiers will calm a situation that seems more like acts of violence by out-of-control rogue soldiers than a real war. That remains to be seen.”

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