This is the first in a three-part posting by Roland Marchal of CNRS/SciencesPo Paris on French policy towards Chad and Sudan.
Over the last year, French official statements addressing the situation in Chad and Sudan have shown discrepancies, to say the least. For instance, after the 14 July announcement that Omar el-Bashir could be indicted by the ICC, the French ambassador at the United Nations claimed that, if the case, French officials and those of all the Rome Treaty’s signatories would not meet him. Yet, on 1 May 2009, Bruno Joubert, the Presidential Adviser on Africa met the Sudanese President in Khartoum, the last of a series of meetings since July 2008. While Bernard Kouchner, the minister of Foreign Affairs, has been campaigning for drastic pressure on Sudan based on simplistic arguments, the Elysée Palace has shown a degree of nuance closer to the British assessment of the situation. Yet, concerning Chad, as witnessed in Doha late May, the French Presidential Palace has been adamantly supporting the Chadian President, Idriss Déby, and trying to disconnect the Darfur crisis from the Chadian one, while the ministry of Foreign affairs seems less enthusiastic now that the EUFOR presence is over. One can give many other examples of those differences which have had little or serious implications on key regional actors’ perceptions of the French stance.
As expressed many times in the pro-NCP newspapers, Bernard Kouchner is a friend of the SLM chairman, Abdel Wahid al Nur, and did contribute to provide him the means to keep campaigning while a political refugee in France. Khalil Ibrahim, JEM‘s leader got also political asylum in France and at a later stage his troops appeared to have been protected while being in Chad by the French army, willingly or not. France could provide explanations on those facts yet these latter give ground to a number of conspiracy theories.
The present article proposes a rough analysis of this situation and intends to show that these differences rely first on a dysfunctional institutional setting due to Nicolas Sarkozy’s poor management of the French foreign policy and secondly on different assumptions of what France’s interests are in the region. To a large extent, Bernard Kouchner’s self promotion –one of his very few long term political commitments – could coexist with infringements made by the presidential advisers on key political issues (beyond Chad, one can quote Lebanon, Ivory Coast, DRC among many others). The rationale is more rooted in French internal politics than any strong differences in a vision of France’s role in the world and Africa.
The French state is not as transparent as the US Administration: there is no counter power, the Parliament and the Senate hardly play their role and the political opposition has little taste to argue about foreign policy, not to mention African policy. The French newspapers, without much surprise, have reduced their scrutiny on those subjects. Therefore, on many aspects this analysis may appear speculative and hard evidence tenuous. Let us assume that other researchers will dig further on this story, correct the mistakes and expand the analysis. This is written to the best of the author’s knowledge and honesty.
From warm friendship to cold friendship
At the time of Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in May 2007, the French stance towards Sudan and Chad had already significantly evolved. Although the relations between Khartoum and Paris were mostly warm in the 1990s, the Naivasha process and the expectation of a deal between the SPLM and the NCP meant that France was losing ground. On one side, in Khartoum an open normalization with Washington reduced the value added of the relations with Paris. The SPLM, which had been usually treated with contempt by French officials in the 1990s, was initially not interested to move forward and forget the many humiliations its leaders faced while attempting to engage French authorities. A very concrete illustration was the fact that France was not part of the group of governments supporting the Naivasha mediation for more than a year. Paris got a back seat only once Chad became a questionable mediator in the Darfur conflict late 2003.
The fact that France had little leverage at first was shown by the background of the French Special Envoy for Sudan, Henri Benoît de Coignac: a retired ambassador who had no expertise on the region and was appointed to clear a previous debatable order of Jacques Chirac against him. As responsible for the Elysean protocol in 1986 under François Mitterrand (a left wing President), he had a number of formal decisions that diminished the status of Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac (a right wing politician). When this latter was elected President in 1995, he settled his score with him and recalled him from his prestigious position in Morocco and replaced him by Ambassador Michel de Bonnecorse, who after 2002 became the head of the Africa Cell at the Presidential Palace. As a way to ease the bitterness of his colleague, who happened to be also the brother in law of private office’s director of Dominique de Villlepin, then minister of Foreign Affairs, he gave him this position and the material advantages attached to it…
Nevertheless, a more substantial change was expressed by the appointment of a new French Ambassador in Khartoum in summer 2004. In contrast to her predecessors, Christine Robichon maintained a better balance between the regime and its opposition and took more seriously the situation in Darfur for what it was; she also campaigned for warmer relationship with SPLM and a decent solution for the conflict between the French oil firm, Total, and While Nile Co. This slow repositioning was genuine but very quickly brought its own problems. First, the SPLM or certain of its leaders had such a predatory ethos that they mishandled this change that eventually could have been very much in the favour of South Sudan: political unrealism and grabbing easy money were too prominent. Second, a number of NCP officials understood that Khartoum should not dismiss old friends while clouds were gathering on their regime. Third, the issue of Darfur became an international issue late spring 2004 and acquired its own dynamic. French politicians at first were not moved but they had to deal with the European and international debate and therefore increasingly endorsed European views. At stake also was the need to get closer to the USA. Too many analyses downplay the cost to France of its opposition to the Iraq war. At the time the Darfur crisis was acknowledged and unfolding at the international level, Paris also wanted to avoid a new difference with Washington and made steps to close the gap. A final point was already the role Chad (in its official and unofficial ways) played in the Darfur crisis (see below).
Although colder, the relationships between Paris and Khartoum did not deteriorate drastically at first. France could justify its stance by its alignment with the international community (i.e. the West) and anyway was not the most inflexible when Darfur was discussed in New York. Even, when clearly Khartoum allowed and even provided the means for some sections of the Chadian armed opposition to gather in summer 2005, the situation was kept under control. This opposition was so fragmented and factional that Idriss Déby at first seemed not vulnerable.
The mood changed after April 2006 and the FUC attack on N’Djamena. Without entering into details, this offensive took the French army by surprise and showed that the king was naked. Despite French support for Déby, rebel columns could reach the capital city of an ally in a very few days. While in Paris, the first move was very much to react against what was seen as an extremely unfriendly act, France eventually decided to push in a strong manner the concept of a military deployment on the border to isolate Chad from the Darfur turmoil. At the same time, France with the Europeans backed the re-hatting of the AMIS with a stronger mandate. It took a year for this to be accepted by Sudan thanks to Chinese influence.
It is still difficult to understand the support Idriss Déby has enjoyed in Paris. As explained elsewhere, he actually supported French policies in the region (in DRC, CAR, Congo-Brazzaville among others) but many rumours at the then ministry of Cooperation put his honesty in doubt in many regards beyond the liberal use of his own State’s money: he may have speculated against his own country when the French F CFA was devaluated in January 1994 and could have been involved in the counterfeit Bahraini dinars saga with some of his colleagues in West Africa, funded a certain French political party and his leader at different occasions. World Bank Governance Indexes put Chad in the last of African countries and oil exploitation that started in 2003, has not improved this poor record.
A turning point in the French attitude towards his regime seems to be July 2003. While attending the AU annual summit in Maputo, Idriss Déby collapsed and went into a coma. Only a very fast reaction of France saved him: when convalescent in Paris, he seemed to have offer a number of rewards and commitments that very much convinced Paris that he was the only State’s man in Chad. A new ambassador, Jean-Pierre Berçot, was appointed later in the year: he was a character by himself but, more than anything else, a former member of the Service Action of the DGSE (equivalent of MI-6) and accompanied Idriss Déby from Darfur to N’djamena throughout the last months of 1990. Therefore, he was very close to Déby to the extent that in 2006 some French officials in Paris complained that he had not anymore any personal views but was only repeating what the Chadian President was telling him. This pathetic situation, not so exceptional among diplomats, reproduced itself with his successor, Bruno Foucher, who was appointed in autumn 2006 and was known to be very close to Bruno Joubert, the director of African Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay: a new victim of the Stockholm syndrome that makes some of his colleagues ironically call him the Chad’s Ambassador in N’djamena.
In 2005, an unexplained incident happened and the French military attaché had his stay in Chad cut short after one year or so though he should have stayed three years. There are allegations that French and US Special Forces had a common operation related either to Darfur or/and counterterrorism that was carried out without Idriss Déby’s knowledge; the Defence attaché was replaced by a new officer, Jean-Marc Marill, who was a brilliant planner, had been involved in the repression of the CAR turmoil in 1996/1997 and quickly insulated himself into Déby’s inner circle. As many officials confirmed to the author, he was the real Chadian Army’s Chief of Staff in April 2006 and February 2008 through the Cellule de Commandement Opérationnel, an institution based at the Chadian Presidency largely managed by French officers and experts that is not allowed by the military cooperation treaty between France and Chad. Some of his colleagues in 2008 mentioned that he was so well protected by the French and Chadian Presidential entourages that he dared not to follow orders from his Chief of Staff or his regional delegate (Chad is under Dakar in terms of the French military apparatus). At the European summit in Lisbon in December 2007, Idriss Déby convinced Nicolas Sarkozy to keep him an additional year in Chad and without the explicit French Army’s Chief of Staff dissent he would even have stayed longer.
It is impossible to actually know the DGSE’s stand. Most references in interviews quote the French Secret Services as very supportive of the Chadian President. Certainly, it was very friendly in the early 1990s as the former DGSE representative in Sudan, Paul Fontbonne, who had channelled French support to him while he was in Darfur was his special adviser for years. Nevertheless, the DGSE got some of its representatives expelled in the late 1990s. After this crisis, little is known about the motivation of the French secret services and its actual stances.
Yet, these personalities do not explain why the French were so attached to Idriss Déby at the risk of jeopardizing substantial interests in Sudan (they have no economic interests in Chad). There is no need here to repeat already known arguments about the values French military may find in Chad, or the political complicity Paris and N’djamena may have enjoyed on dubious operations. One may add two that have become increasingly prominent in the French discourse on the region and may catch some elements of truth.
Over the last 30 years, only France and Libya have had a say in Chadian politics. The USA and Sudan were more than often deeply involved but accepted (or were constrained to do so) to allow the two former to make decisions. To a certain extent, Sudan (and Darfur) was the place where major shifts occurred but the Sudanese regime as such was never powerful enough to have a strategic influence on the outcome. When Hissène Habré decided to play the US card in a more unilateral manner after 1988, he had to deal with a growing French discontent (not only linked to this specific aspect) and eventually had to escape his own country in Décember 1990. Certainly, the current ambition by Khartoum to remove an unfriendly regime in N’djamena is seen in Paris (and Tripoli) as an unacceptable innovation.
There is also another face that would deserve greater attention. To a large extent after Tripoli surrendered the two Lockerbie suspects for trial in the Netherlands in April 1999, or after September 2003 when the UN Security Council voted to lift the sanctions against Libya, it became clear in Europe that Libya would not be anymore considered as a “rogue State” and that it could become a strategic Mediterranean partner, in terms of trade, control of the immigration and the like. France was late in normalizing its relations due to the UTA bombing. Certainly, the acknowledgement of Libyan influence in Chad became a way to soften Mu’ammar Gaddafi. It explained as well why France that was very well aware of the military supplies reaching a number of insurgent groups including JEM never expressed any concern: there was too much to lose at the time the European and Atlantic competition was raging. The release of the Bulgarian nurses “by” Nicolas Sarkozy in summer 2007 (despite the fact that most of the work had been done by European officials) is therefore the tip of the iceberg and had to be understood in that context.