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Last Updated: Monday, 4 February 2008, 19:46 GMT
France faces tough choices over Chad
By Hugh Schofield
Paris

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner
France's interventionist foreign minister is keeping his distance
France is observing the dramatic developments in Chad in a state of nervous exasperation.

The latest news that the rebels have pulled out of the centre of N'Djamena - with President Idriss Deby still apparently in charge - has come as a relief.

But, seen from Paris, the situation remains highly unstable.

The government of Nicolas Sarkozy is going to have to walk on diplomatic and military egg-shells for some time yet.

The root cause of France's discomfort is that it is trying to pursue two policy objectives that the rebel offensive has made incompatible.

Civil war

On the one hand, the government is adamant that the bad old days of "la Francafrique" - when French troops regularly intervened to prop up corrupt allies - have been consigned to history.

CHAD TIMELINE
June 2005 - Constitutional changes approved allowing president to stand for third term
April 2006 - Hundreds killed as rebels fight government troops on outskirts of N'Djamena
May 2006 - President Deby wins election boycotted by opposition
January 2008 - EU approves peacekeeping force to protect Darfur refugees from violence in Chad

There is therefore no question of France's 1,450 soldiers permanently based in Chad being used to keep Mr Deby in power.

As Mr Sarkozy's Cabinet Director Claude Gueant said on Sunday, "the conflict in Chad is a civil war and the antagonists are Chadians; France can only intervene in the context of an international mandate".

In fact a military co-operation agreement does exist between France and its former colony, but officially this only extends to providing logistical and intelligence aid.

So far in the conflict France has observed a strict neutrality, surprising some observers by not offering even the kind of discreet help it has done in the past.

In 2006, for example, a French Mirage jet fired shots across the bows of an advancing rebel column - thus delivering an unmistakeable message not to go further. Nothing similar has happened today.

Regional ambitions

This neutrality is an awkward posture for France because of the second of its two policy objectives.

This is the need, for now, to keep Idriss Deby in power.

If the French government feels no special affection for the man, the fact nonetheless remains that the Chadian leader has become a key player in France's wider regional ambitions.

The focus of these ambitions is the deployment - planned to take place as of now - of a new European protection force in eastern Chad.

map

Mr Sarkozy has staked an enormous amount of prestige in promoting this, the biggest ever EU peacekeeping force.

Officially given the go-ahead only a week ago, Eufor's task will be to provide security for refugees from Darfur and other displaced persons.

Eventually a mixed UN-African Union force should do the same job on the Sudan side of the border.

For Mr Sarkozy, Eufor represents both the symbol of a new ethical Africa policy, so different from the grubby arrangements of the past, and a supreme test for Europe's emerging defence identity.

It took months of tough negotiations with Mr Deby to get the force accepted.

THE REBEL COALITION
Unified Military Command includes:
Union of Forces for Democracy (UFDD) led by Mahamat Nouri
Rally of Forces for Change (RFC) led by Timane Erdimi
UFDD-Fundamental led by Abdelwahid Aboud Mackaye

It was nearly derailed by the Zoe's Ark charity fiasco late last year, when French aid workers were convicted of trying to smuggle out children.

And now, just as it was all about to happen, the plan has gone pear-shaped.

The deployment has been put on hold, and if the rebels win it may never happen at all.

Of course, for the French government, there is no coincidence in the timing.

The rebels did not want Eufor to deploy because its presence would hinder their freedom to manoeuvre against Mr Deby.

More disturbingly, the Sudanese government - generally accepted to be the Chadian rebels' backer - also had strong reasons not to want Eufor in place.

Painful dilemma

They do not want any serious international force within reach of Darfur.

Chad's President Idriss Deby
Mr Deby is not beloved by France, but remains a useful regional ally

The rebels had to act fast. They left the Sudanese border last Monday - the very day of Eufor's endorsement by Brussels - and were in N'Djamena by week's end.

The dilemma for Paris has been painful: to intervene - and be caricatured as a throw-back to the neo-colonialism of "la Francafrique" - or not to intervene, and see a first chance to stand tall on the African continent dwindle into the desert sands?

So far the preferred option has been to wait, and hope that fortune turns.

Signs that the rebels may have over-reached themselves - and their 500-mile supply chain - have been greeted with barely disguised glee.

But, if the situation deteriorates, there is another option: internationalisation.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Monday that France was, for the time being, keeping its distance from the conflict.

"But if there is a UN Security Council resolution or if the African Union comes up with a new suggestion, things could change," he said.

On Monday, the Security Council did pass a resolution condemning the rebel advance and calling for governments to extend support to President Idriss Deby. It remains to be seen whether that amounts to the cover that France needs to intervene.


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