The saying goes that “old habits die hard,” and that seems to be the sentiment after the recent rebel attack on the landlocked African country of Chad. The habit in focus is not a rebel group fighting an authoritarian government, but rather the European efforts to revitalize its relationship with the continent it once colonized.
France broke from its traditional policy of protecting Chad’s government from attack, by initially refusing to intervene. However, after receiving international backing France returned to save Chadian president Idriss Déby. Sarkozy’s hesitation to defend the Déby government, a French ally, in order to maintain the neutrality of the EU peacekeeping (EUFOR) force set a precedent by placing EU interests over France’s national interests.
Chad, formerly French Equatorial Africa, gained independence in 1960 but maintained close ties with France throughout its turbulent history of wars, coups, and civil wars. France has protected Chad with intelligence, logistics, and occasional sorties by French mirages. The last time this rebel group tried to attack Déby in the capital of N’Djamena in 2006, French mirage jets fired warning shots across the column of trucks and ended the attack.
The rebels are a coalition of various groups that are supported and funded by Chad’s neighbor, Sudan. Both Chad and Sudan accuse each other of funding the respective insurgencies within their countries. As the violence from the Darfur region of Sudan spilled over into eastern Chad, rebels established themselves in eastern Chad along the Sudanese border. The EU, spearheaded by France, established EUFOR as one of their first Africa peacekeeping missions to protect refugees in the refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border. This is one of Europe’s first unified peacekeeping expeditions outside the continent. It was essential for many European contributors that this force be neutral and not become a tool a French policy.
France is caught between two interests: Chad and the EU. In order to maintain neutrality France had to stand back and let Déby’s government fight its own battles. However, if the Déby government fell, then the entire EUFOR and France’s reputation attached to it would be in jeopardy. In the early days of the attack France stood back as rebel forces advanced on to the presidential palace. However, after receiving the Security Counsel’s go ahead, France aided Déby, and the rebel offensive faltered.
From this clash, it appears that there has been a crucial shift in French outlook. The old guard of Chirac still personified the French policy of “la Francafrique” by which France supported corrupt and dictatorial regimes in former colonies that served French interests. Sarkozy adopted a new policy of more neutral EU peacekeeping force that would not intervene in other nations’ internal affairs. This reflects new efforts by the European community to start anew with Africa and burry any remnants of colonial favoritism or interventionism.
However, France’s eventual protection for Chad’s government seems to show that the new trend is gradual and prone to occasional relapse. The immediate reasons for intervention were obvious since the entire EUFOR mission was in jeopardy if a new government in Chad was hostile to foreign forces on its soil. The timing for the attack was not coincidental since the rebels’ Sudanese backers pressured the rebels to attack because they sought to prevent the peacekeeping mission from arriving on their doorsteps. However, in the long term France inevitably came to the rescue of a leader charged with tribal favoritisms, dictatorial leadership, and corruption by the rebels.
The recent breakdown of trade talks in Portugal last December between the EU and AU proved another blow to new relations between the two continents beyond the shadow of colonialism. Many European countries hoped to get bilateral trade agreement between the two multinational groups, however their failure leaves the Europeans with the options to impose tariffs or maintain their old policies of favoring ex-colonies.
What the recent Portuguese summit and French protection of the Déby government shows us is not that a fresh start between Europe and African is impossible, but that it will require major shifts in the mindset of both sides before dramatic change is accomplished.