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Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Wednesday, 20 August 2008 14:46 UK

Afghan deaths unsettle France

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

French soldiers in Kabul, 20/08
Morale is reported to be very low in some French units

Shortly after he learned of the deaths of 10 French soldiers killed by Taleban insurgents, President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement saying he was travelling to Afghanistan to "assure the French troops that France stands by them".

France does indeed stand by the courage of its serving soldiers but the French leader is deluding himself if he believes the French people also stand by the war.

A survey taken in April this year, when the president announced he was sending a further battalion of almost 800 soldiers to north-east Afghanistan, showed that two-thirds of people here believe their country had no place in the conflict.

France vociferously refused to let its soldiers become involved in the war in Iraq and there is a feeling that it has somehow unwittingly got into the conflict in Afghanistan through the back door

The opposition Socialists reacted to the news of more troops by trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to pass a no-confidence vote.

The left-leaning Liberation newspaper said on Wednesday that it was time for France to face up to the fact that, like it or not, it was now engaged in a full-blown war 5,000km (3000 miles) away.

The real challenge for the French soldiers, claimed a bitter editorial, was how to win an unwinnable war.

And exactly whose war is it? That is the question that most French people are asking.

Emotive coverage

President Sarkozy is adamant that the French engagement in Afghanistan is all about being part of the global fight against terrorism.

In a recent shake-up of the defence system, he announced that a terrorist attack was now the biggest single threat to French security.

His determination to continue the fight, he said, remained intact, despite the latest tragedy.

Mr Sarkozy (R) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Mr Sarkozy has reiterated his commitment to the Afghan conflict

But many people wonder if France has not just been sucked into Uncle Sam's war.

It may be 42 years since Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of Nato's military arm, but his belief that its command structure was really just a way for the US to be in control is still shared by many people here today.

The nervousness will not be helped by stories like the one carried in Wednesday's Parisien, which sent its reporter to the French military base in Kabul to interview the grieving troops.

"French Army in Shock," read the headline, accompanied by a front page photograph of an army general with his head in his hands as if in despair.

Inside, grim-faced soldiers have stoically told the paper they know their mission has not changed but they will be much more apprehensive on future patrols.

One young officer admitted to the Parisien reporter that in his battalion "morale has never been so low".

A small article also carries a poignant photograph of one of the dead soldiers, Julien le Pahun, with the emotive title: "He should have been celebrating his 20th birthday today."

Changing role

France vociferously refused to let its soldiers become involved in the war in Iraq and there is a feeling that it has somehow unwittingly got into the conflict in Afghanistan through the back door.

Twenty-four French soldiers have died there since operations began in 2003. Once the August holidays are over, the Socialists say they will call for a proper debate on exactly why French troops are in Afghanistan and what their mission hopes to achieve.

The largely pro-government newspaper, Le Figaro, soberly explains that France must understand it is not in Kabul as part of a peacekeeping mission but as part of a war.

Echoing President Sarkozy, it asks its readers to see French participation in the conflict not as a gesture to the Bush administration but as an engagement in the fight against terrorism.

But the deaths of the soldiers have come at a very sensitive moment.

This is a nation that guards its independence jealously, but President Sarkozy has made no secret of the fact that France is likely to come back under full Nato membership next year.

And with nearly 3,000 soldiers already stationed in Afghanistan assisting Nato's mission, it is clear that the French leader wants France to take a bigger role in the conflict with more military responsibility.

Ironically the ill-fated Isaf reconnaissance mission in the rocky Sarobi district, 50km (31 miles) east of Kabul, which saw 10 French soldiers killed and 21 others wounded was not led by the US. The command of the area had just been handed over - to France.


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