“Forcefulness seems to come easily to Mr Hollande abroad”, noted one commentator for the New York Times, who contrasted the French president’s ailing political performance at home with his robust foreign policy.
Where Francois Hollande looks weak and beleaguered on the national stage, registering as the most unpopular French president ever, his fortunes seem to rise abroad with a strident interventionist foreign policy. We saw that in September when the French president unseated the British as America’s “special friend” by declaring his country’s readiness to join Washington in a military assault on Syria.
Elysée Palace may have subsequently regretted that particular gung-ho gambit after US President Barack Obama got cold feet and eventually backed away from military action in Syria, leaving Paris looking like a tin soldier.
Nevertheless, we saw in Hollande’s Syria stance a man who appears more decisive and confident when it comes to an overseas matter, compared with his evident puny appearance at home assailed on different political fronts.
This French activist tendency on foreign matters was on display again over the recent P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Hollande and his foreign minister Laurent Fabius appointed themselves as the “defenders of Israel” and indulged in taking a “tough stand” during the three rounds of talks in Geneva.
France’s old colonial stomping ground in Africa is also providing the Hollande government with a convenient counterfoil to domestic woes… The surprise military intervention in Mali last year benefited Hollande in the polls, with resurgence in French national pride from having successfully – superficially at least – defeated a secessionist Islamist movement in the West Africa country.
The French intervention in Mali with 3,000 troops may yet come back to haunt Hollande as the putative “defeat” of rebels in the northern part of the country seems far from complete, with French soldiers coming under a spate of recent attacks even in the supposedly safe Francophile southern capital, Bamako.
Also, France’s military intervention in Mali is placing thousands of French expatriate workers in several African countries at risk of kidnapping or reprisal killings as we saw with the murder of two journalists in the northern town of Kidal earlier this month.
However, the cost-benefit analysis from French intervention in Africa seems to be in Hollande’s favor – so far. The French leader has, up to now, gained more purposefulness and profile among his population and internationally by his foreign policy posture.
In this posture, Hollande is seen to be leading international interventions under the remit of humanitarian concern, restoring order in fractious states and defending French and even global security interests against assorted terrorist networks, particularly of the Islamist brand. Variations of this narrative have been invoked for recent French military action in Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Somalia.
Of course, this cynical maneuver of foreign forays has long been used by many other political leaders trying to elude domestic duress, including Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy when the latter intervened with French military in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010 and as part of the NATO regime-change operation in Libya during 2011 – the year before Hollande was elected.
This is the context for dramatic French claims last week that the Central African Republic is “on the verge of genocide”. Hollande’s government is pushing for the United Nations Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping mission next month in that former French colony. Significantly, the mission being sought will involve French troops deployed along with an African Union force.
Speaking on the state of affairs in the CAR, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told France 2 TV last week: “It’s total disorder… we need to act quickly.” He added: “You have seven surgeons for a population of five million, an infant mortality rate of 25 per cent in some areas, and 1.5 million people who have nothing, not even food, and armed gangs, bandits roaming around.”
The security situation in the Central African Republic is indeed of international concern. Since the coup against President Francois Bozizé in March earlier this year, the country no longer appears to have a functioning central government outside of the capital, Bangui. The new self-declared president, Michel Djotodia, has reportedly lost control of the rebel factions of the Seleka movement that brought him to power. This has led to a climate of lawlessness with reports of killings, looting and other violations.
There is also renewed fighting between the rebel groups and remnant CAR forces loyal to the ousted president. Bozizé is reportedly living in exile in France.
However, the French government’s dire assessment and the ulterior motives behind it are questionable. Due to lack of communications in remote parts of CAR, the exact security conditions are not known or verifiable. Reported deaths from violent clashes in recent weeks are in the dozens, not hundreds or thousands, as the French government’s alarmism would portend.
Also when France’s Fabius was pressed on how many French soldiers would be dispatched to CAR under a UN peacekeeping operation, the foreign minister appeared to contradict his initial dramatic concern of “genocide”. He said: “This intervention will be different from that in Mali”, adding: “It will not be so massive nor as long [as in Mali].”
That is a curious anomaly in the official French rationale. Mali was reportedly threatened by a secessionist movement, whereupon France mounted Operation Serval with 3,000 troops in January 2013, backed up by helicopter gunships and state-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets.
Yet, in the Central African Republic, which Hollande’s government is claiming is in much greater danger of disintegration – “on the verge of genocide” – the French foreign minister says that 600-700 troops will be sent there – less than a quarter dispatched to Mali, and with no back-up from helicopters or fighter jets.
This contradiction suggests that Paris is playing disingenuous politics, and deliberately talking up a crisis in Central Africa.
For what reason, it may be asked? As mentioned, President Francois Hollande is finding foreign policy a welcome distraction and relief from angry French taxpayers, legions of unemployed, striking farmers and an ascendant far-right political wave that is galvanizing discontent over immigrants, poverty and general societal decay. In short, Hollande is on the political ropes and has been ever since his May 2012 election.
Where Hollande appears a pusillanimous figure at home, his government has salvaged some credibility with a muscular foreign policy.
We have seen this with regard to pugnacious French policy on Syria, Iran and Mali, among others, and now it would seem the Central African Republic is similarly being brought into play for what may be deemed implicit cynical reasons.
There are other boons for French intervention in CAR. For a start, by soliciting a UN Security Council mandate, the French get important political cover from accusations that they are acting as neo-imperialists. Also, the financial cost of any such involvement will probably be borne by the “international community” rather than by Paris. In other words, French intervention in Central Africa under the Socialist Hollande would be, appropriately it might be said, subsidized, under the auspices of the UN.
Such a move is a tad cheeky, given that many lucrative advantages would reward renewed French presence in its former colony. With a population of only 4.6 million (seven per cent of France’s), the CAR is hugely endowed with natural resources. Diamonds, gold, copper, oil, prime agricultural land, timber and virgin forests, as well as vast hydropower potential owing to two major rivers that flow north into Chad and southwards to the Congo.
Of strategic importance are abundant reserves of uranium – the primary nuclear fuel. These reserves have so far been largely untapped in the CAR. France, which is heavily dependent on nuclear power for its electricity generation, is reportedly setting up a major new mining plant in the CAR to process uranium ore.
The strategic value of uranium cannot be overstated as a vital national interest for France. This resource is common to other former French colonies in Africa, including Mali and Niger, where France has also been displaying much greater interventionist policies of late.
The cruel irony is that the CAR is one of the poorest countries in Africa, ranked in the bottom 10 out of some 55 nations. With its tiny population and profuse natural resources, the CAR should be one of the most developed. The truth is that, the CAR is wracked with appalling poverty and underdevelopment because of decades of relentless French exploitation of its resources and finances, first as a colony up to 1960, and subsequently as a pseudo-independent country dominated by the Paris-controlled Franc Afrique monetary system.
As with all former French colonies in Africa, the CAR is compelled under the Franc Afrique system to deposit its foreign-exchange earnings in the National Treasury in Paris. France permits itself to earn financial interest on these deposits and to lend the money back to African countries also at interest. It is no wonder that these countries have remained in abject poverty and underdevelopment nearly five decades after so-called independence, or as French foreign minister Fabius lamented in the case of the CAR that it only has “seven surgeons” for the entire population.
But the bitter irony runs even deeper. The CAR is described as a “failed state in permanent crisis”. It has never known stable government because of incessant coups and counter-coups. French commandos have been involved in orchestrating some of these coup d’etats in the CAR, as in many other former French African colonies.
In 1979, France lost patience with its long-time tyrant and mass-murderer in the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and kicked him out. Again in 2003, French military intervened to install Francois Bozizé. Ten years later, the French puppet Bozizé was himself deposed by the Seleka rebels amid accusations of rampant corruption.
So, the undoubted instability, chaos and poverty afflicting the Central African Republic can be traced directly to the ongoing legacy of French colonial interference in the internal affairs of that country. Paradoxically, France now appears to be emphasizing the outward symptoms of its mischievous covert meddling in the CAR in order to justify even more French intervention – an intervention that has got little to do with assisting the long-suffering people of that country and lot more to do with securing French selfish strategic interests, as well as giving a political bail-out to beleaguered President Hollande and his floundering government.
As ever, as the case of the Central African Republic illustrates, impoverished Africa is performing the historic role assigned to it by French colonialism – propping up France and French politicians. The crying needs of African people – real independence and control of their resources – are a much-relegated concern.