Suspicions over French role in CAR run deep
Central Africans are convinced that Paris imposes everything in beleaguered CAR
French peacekeeping soldiers leave their base in Mpoko international airport in Bangui last December. Photograph: Emmanuel Braun/Reuters
The road from Bangui to Brussels goes through Paris, literally and figuratively. Catherine Samba Panza, the interim president of the Central African Republic, flew to Paris to see French senators and President François Hollande before participating in the EU-Africa summit today and tomorrow.
At the initiative of France, the commission will devote a two-hour session to the poorest and most troubled former French colony. Samba Panza, a French-trained lawyer and former mayor of Bangui, who is prevented by rules from being a candidate in the March 2015 presidential election, will try to convince EU leaders to help her beleaguered country.
Charles Malinas, France’s ambassador to Bangui, receives me in the sandbagged chancery on the banks of the Oubangi river. He enumerates the subjects to be discussed in Brussels: the year-long transition to elections; the security situation; reconstruction of the Central African economy and state; the need for a functioning justice system; the displacement of one-fifth of the CAR’s population; and humanitarian aid.
The EU and US have been happy to see France reassume the role of gendarme in Africa, but it’s not a role Paris wants to play alone. President François Hollande dispatched 1,600 troops – now 2,000 – in operation Sangaris to stop a bloodbath in December, when some 1,000 Central Africans were slaughtered in two days by militias.
The French military presence was supposed to be a question of months. “The level of hatred and violence is much greater than we imagined,” defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted in February, when the mission was extended. Now Paris is in danger of getting bogged down in a costly intervention, with its motives constantly questioned by the people it attempts to help.
“African issues must not be the sole responsibility of France,” Mr Malinas argues. “We must convince our European partners that the stability of the African continent is important for their security, and for humanitarian and development reasons.”
The summit will announce the deployment later this month of some 500 European peacekeepers in Euforca, to support the 2,000 French and 6,000 Africans in the Sangaris and Misca peace-keeping missions.
It’s been an uphill battle for Paris to secure European support. France has also led efforts to obtain a UN Security Council resolution, expected within days, establishing a UN peacekeeping force to be deployed alongside Sangaris, Misca and Euforca from mid-September.
CAR was the last African country colonised by France, in 1890. The French called it Oubangi-Chari, after two of the country’s rivers, and it was crucial to French plans to span the continent from west to east.
Britain ended that strategy in the showdown at Fashoda in 1898. As a result, Paris did not invest in CAR as it had in earlier colonies such as Senegal and Ivory Coast, where special schools for the sons of village chiefs prepared a future political elite.
Since independence in 1960, France has sent in paratroopers on average every decade, each time a coup against a corrupt president plunged the country into violence. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled CAR from 1966 until he was overthrown by the French “operation Barracuda” in 1979, served with the French army in Indochina and Algeria before he seized power in Bangui, eventually declaring himself emperor in a grotesque repetition of Napoleon’s coronation.
Bokassa took revenge on president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing by revealing that he’d given diamonds to the French leader, ensuring Giscard lost his bid for re-election.
France’s post-colonial policy in Africa, piloted for decades by Charles De Gaulle’s African adviser Jacques Foccart, was known as “ la Françafrique ” . Ending la Françafrique was a campaign promise of Hollande.
In preceding decades, Malinas explains, “the interests of the former colonial power were protected, without necessarily taking account of the wishes of the country in question. François Hollande has clearly put an end to that. Our policy is one of co-operation in the truest sense of the word”.
A French economist working with the CAR minister of finance to obtain approval for IMF loans is merely providing expertise, Malinas says. “It really is the minister and prime minister who take the decisions.”
No French good deed goes unpunished in CAR. Central Africans remain convinced that Paris is “the hand that thinks up and imposes everything in the CAR”, in the words of an editorial in a Bangui newssheet.
Children taunt Sangaris and Misca patrols with women’s names, shouting “Clarisse” at the French and “Prisca” at African troops.
Both factions dispute the impartiality of French peacekeepers. “The [Christian] anti-balaka say France is the ally of the [Muslim] Seleka,” Malinas says. “The Seleka say France is the ally of the anti-balaka. When you’re here to disarm both sides, they think you’re hard on them and not on the others. Seriously, France is the ally of no one.”
Without reliable sources of information, rumour, gossip and folk memories of colonial times determine popular attitudes.
“Did Sangaris come here to protect the CAR or to loot it?” Steve Fatigué, a poor labourer, asked as he waited to load food lorries for the World Food Programme.
The suspicion is widespread. “We’re victims of neo-colonialism,” said Mathurine Back, an anthropology student who condemns Sangaris, Misca and the Seleka, but praises the anti-balaka. “The French came here with digging machines and caterpillars to steal our wealth while we’re dying.”
CAR’s real wealth, which built the hulking 1960s and 1970s public buildings of Bangui, is agricultural, says Malinas. Exports of tobacco, cacao, cotton and palm oil have ceased in a country where only 3 per cent of roads are paved and the extraction of natural resources is extremely costly. The French company Areva no longer mines CAR uranium. China has not acted on its oil concession. A small amount of diamond and gold mining is done illegally by smugglers. Yet fantasies of French “looting” persist.
“This country is in a dreadful state,” says Malinas. “The security, humanitarian, reconstruction and economic challenges are enormous . . . Everyone who is able must come together, roll up their sleeves and make an effort.”