As Iraq continues to disintegrate, France has offered arms and humanitarian aid — but no direct military assistance. The response is expected; President Francois Hollande faces a weary populace at home unlikely to welcome a costly, foreign war, especially one that’s considered Washington’s fight. But France is shying away from engagement in Libya as well, where the fall of dictator Muammar Gadhafi left a political vacuum since filled by armed militias and rebel groups. Hollande’s reluctance to commit French resources, not to mention troops, is a continuing departure from France’s historically robust interventionist policy, at least in Africa. After decades of deep engagement on the continent — 19 military operations between 1962 and 1996 — which often entailed propping up corrupt governments at the expense of legitimate, but ideologically opposed ones, France stepped back.
The policy change was orchestrated by Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who was foreign minister during the Rwandan genocide, which left an estimated 800,000 people dead. Paris moved towards towards multilateral operations in coordination with international forces and regional bodies, and peacekeeping, rather than military, roles. Nonetheless, diplomatic relations between France and Rwanda have since been shaky, even briefly being broken off in 2006.
Under Hollande’s leadership, France is still present in Africa. French boots remain on the ground in the Central African Republic, where one year after the nation erupted in chaos, little has changed. If anything, the nation is faring worse, due to sectarian fighting after the ouster of predominantly Muslim Séléka rebels from the capital Bangui. It’s clear that French President François Hollande hoped the C.A.R. operation would mark a victorious end to France’s role as the so-called ‘gendarme’ of Africa — the campaign’s debut came a few weeks after Paris hosted a summit for Africa leaders focused on relinquishing France’s policing responsibility. (The potential bonus for Hollande: cred on the international stage and favor with the home crowd, who largely welcomed France’s 2013 Mali campaign.)
The fight hasn’t gone as planned, however, and France looks stuck in the C.A.R. for the time being, even as the U.N. gears up to send peacekeepers there in September. Here Hollande faces a paradox: if Paris shows too much muscle, in the C.A.R. or elsewhere in Africa, it risks being attacked for reverting to its former paternalism. Yet with inaction also carrying the risk of widespread criticism, distress calls from the African continent have proven hard to ignore.
Here we explore the most notable French interventions of the past two decades:
Operation Manta entailed 3,500 French troops and millions of dollars — the largest deployment since the end of the colonial era — and was launched to suppress a rebellion backed by Gadhafi-run Libya and protect Chadian President Hissene Habré. The operation was successful, though France would intervene again two years later, this time relying on air strikes, to forestall an additional rebellion; Habré remained in power until 1990. The only problem was that France’s man on the ground proved to be a dictator responsible for widespread political killings, torture, and ethnically motivated violence. (France was not alone here; the U.S. covertly provided guns, money and training to ensure Habré’s forces would prevail in the fight against perennial nuisance Gadhafi, and curb his ambition of creating an Islamic mini-empire in the region.)
In 2008, France returned to Chad, this time to protect President Idriss Deby, who took office after driving Habré into exile. In 2013, 23 years after Habré’s ouster, the Chadian dictator was arrested and now faces prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In 2011, France partnered with Great Britain to oust longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi under the auspices of a NATO operation. While the French press lauded the military operation — “France has pulled off a masterstroke,” proclaimed Libération — and opinion polls revealed domestic support upwards of 60%, it was met coolly by sub-Saharan leaders, who were trying to mediate a negotiated solution via the African Union.
The operation successfully toppled Gadhafi yet three years later Libya is a mess, plagued by armed militias who have seized the country’s major oil ports, paralyzing Libya’s main source of income, and political instability in Tripoli. The blowback from the mission can be found further afield in Mali, where Tuaregs in Gadhafi’s army fled after his ouster, arms and expertise in tow. Both played a role in Mali’s deteriorating stability last year. Here, at least, Paris looks to have learned its lesson. The gunshy Elysée backed away from military action in Libya in February 2014, rebuffing an appeal for foreign aid from neighboring Niger. More recently, it has called on the European Union to commit arms and resources, though no mention of boots on the ground.
Ivory Coast, 2011
France sent some 1,400 troops to the Ivory Coast after civil war broke out over President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to resign after losing a national election. (Rival Alassane Outtara was pronounced the victor.) Though the operation was born of a U.N. resolution allowing France to act “in defense of its civilians” the mission was more about protecting Outtara than French nationals.
President Nicolas Sarkozy employed a cautious approach, procuring U.N. permission for each military action, and shying away from overt interventionism, notably the symbolic arrest of Gbagbo, who was captured by his presidential guard and then handed over to French troops. Likewise, the French leader reportedly blocked French soldiers from commandeering bridges in the capital Abidjan. The crisis’ rapid resolution earned France accolades and Sarkozy a respite from the blowback over a diplomatic disaster in North Africa — French officials reportedly offered to help Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali suppress a domestic uprising — amid catastrophic approval ratings back home.
Operation Serval was launched in January 2013 to roust Islamist militants who took over northern Mali in the wake of political instability caused by dual events: a military coup in Bamako and the rebellion of Tuareg separatists in the north. The campaign granted President Hollande a much needed boost at home, where his approval ratings saw a rare spike, and on the international stage, where France has been lackluster in recent years. (See our Blouin Beat feature: Hollande’s weak hand and the French malaise.) The operation was also welcomed on the African continent; cheers of “Vive la France” met French soldiers liberating northern Malian cities.
Yet, the intervention has not proven as clear cut a success as the Elysée had hoped. Jihadist factions employing guerrilla tactics continue to crop up in northern Mali. Paris did succeed, however, at pushing through fast-tracked elections meant to restore stability to the nation (and clear the path for a French exit.) The United Nations sent in a peacekeeping force in July 2013, which reinforced a skeletal force of French troops. A full French withdrawal is scheduled by the end of 2014.
A previous version of this article appeared on April 11, 2014.