Chadian President Idriss Déby has been killed. According to the official account of his death, Déby was fatally wounded while leading troops on the frontline against the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). This is a remarkable outcome from an improbable series of events and it will have implications far beyond the borders of Chad. Amongst many things, it reveals the increasing difficulties facing French-Africa policy, and indeed French foreign policy in general.
For decades France has worked to ensure that everything which happens inside its African sphere of influence is orchestrated in the service of French interests. This has led to the widespread narrative among some parts of the French government and some commentators that no matter what happens, France is secretly pulling the strings. It is a testament to the pervasive role that France has plays, and the attraction of this narrative, that the death of one of the greatest French allies in Africa and the descent of a key ally into chaos were greeted initially in many quarters with the question: what is France playing at?
But the truth is that the death of Déby exposes the hard limits of French influence and points towards a necessary evolution in how France relates to African countries.
The colonial pact
After the formal end of the French empire, the colonial pact — the strong economic, political and military ties which link France and to its former African colonies — was intended to maintain French grandeur on the world stage and to show that the country remained a player in world affairs. Its durability reflects not so much its legitimacy but the fact that the French guarantee security to incumbent leaders. As a result, many African countries still host French military bases and use the CFA franc, a currency designed in 1946 to serve the interests of the French state. French political, military, and economic influence in Africa rests on a commitment to intervene in support of chosen leaders – and, indeed, French troops have intervened in Africa 27 times since 1960.
The strategic importance of Déby and Chad
The late Déby was a classic example of the colonial pact in that his loyalty to French interests led France to support his 30-year rule and to intervene several times to protect his regime from challengers, most recently in 2019. But this time French protection could not save him. On Saturday 17th April 2021 FACT rebels were permitted to cross hundreds of miles of Chadian territory, on the day of the Presidential election. Reports vary but the official line is that Déby was wounded whilst leading his troops against the rebels. French forces provided intelligence assistance to Chadian forces but otherwise appeared to be absent from the fray – despite their sizeable assets and troops in the country. The HQ for the 5000 strong regional counterterrorism force, Barkhane, is the Chadian capital N’Djamena which is also the base for French Mirage jets. The perception of French absence has therefore been much commentated on.
Chad, despite being little known on the world stage, is critically important to French-Africa Policy. It is strategically important and is a good indicator of the overall health of the relationships that make up the pact. In the 1970s, the country was a hanging thread picked at by Libya, an aspirational rival to French hegemony in the region, and saw several indecisive French holding actions until the deployment of Operation Épervier in 1986. This operation crushed Libyan attempts to destabilise Chad, giving French military interventionism on the continent a new lease of life. This thread now appears to be hanging loose again and it remains to be seen which regional rivals may choose to pick at the fraying fabric of the French sphere.
A troubling outlook for France
From the French perspective, the strategic outlook now appears a good deal worse than in the 1970s. France is beset on all sides by capable rivals. The battle for influence in Libya has already been lost by France, with a series of appalling strategic moves from 2011 onwards culminating in the French navy beating a retreat in 2020 when targeted by blockade-running Turkish warships as formerly French aligned militia in the interior were obliterated by Turkish backed forces. There is some evidence that the FACT rebels alleged to have killed Déby were equipped by Russian aligned groups in Libya.
Further south the surprise flipping of the Central African Republic from the French sphere to the Russian fired the starting gun on an increasingly acrimonious battle for regional influence. Anti-French propaganda by Russia helped to set the conditions in Mali for the coup d’état which removed President IBK.
Beyond the African continent, the situation looks if anything, even worse. Poorly conceived showmanship like Macron’s visit to Beirut following the horrific accident there in August 2020 inserted an unhelpful neo-colonial element to the crisis which arguably made resolution of real governance problems harder. In the 2020 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, France was again forced to sit on the side-lines as French allies were blasted by Turkish-backed forces.
Responding to Turkish support for Azerbaijan Macron thundered that “[Turkey] has crossed a red line — that’s unacceptable,” but as co-president of the OSCE Minsk group on the conflict, France proved toothless as successive ceasefires were broken. The crisis was resolved only when Russia brokered a peace deal in November 2020. The current Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine, where France is committed to the resolution of the conflict through the Normandy format, have also resulted only in relatively muted expressions of concern and hopes for de-escalation. Taken together, these foreign policy difficulties paint a clear pattern of French impotence sharply at odds with the grandeur which the colonial pact was supposed to foster.
Cycles of activity and retrenchment
French military activism in support of its neo-colonial interests has gone through cycles of activity and retrenchment with the activist 1960s followed by the drab and defensive 1970s. The resurgent French interventionism of the 1980s and early 1990s led to ultimate overreach and calamity in Rwanda in 1994 and a period of French hesitancy followed by a more collegiate and multilateral French approach. This era was followed by the sizeable French interventions in Libya and the Sahel in the 2010s but today seems like the right time for retrenchment, particularly following the fiscal shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and the likelihood of reduced defence budgets in future.
More generally, the crisis in Chad is a reminder that France, even at the height of its postcolonial influence, was never omnipotent. On the contrary, part of the rationale for the colonial pact was to project an image of power, despite its paucity of financial and military resources. France is better seen as a shoe-string hegemon than a regional superpower. The 2013 intervention in Mali revealed this clearly, as a relatively small number of unsupported French troops were sent into harm’s way in the hope that the mere act of deploying them would scare rebel forces. The sight of the tricolour, and punishing airstrikes, were enough to maintain the aura of French grandeur but the costs of maintaining this have grown increasingly heavy.
France has lost an ally and an aura of power
Déby cooperated in maintaining this imagined power of France, upon which his own security depended, by sending Chadian forces to Mali to assist in the hazardous business of combat, which France’s European partners would not. As French confidence wavered and France considered withdrawal from the Sahel in early 2021, it was Idriss Déby who despatched an additional 1200 Chadian troops, shoring up the French mission and stiffening resolve. President Macron’s statement that France has lost a ‘brave friend’ must be read in this context. Whilst current evidence suggests that Déby’s death may have been the result of an opportunist shot on a chaotic battlefield, it has punctured the illusion of French influence.
All across the vast territory covered by the French security umbrella today there will be allies and enemies who will draw the same conclusion.
Dr Joe Gazeley is a Scouloudi Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research