Prelude to Intervention: French Wars in Africa, Part I

Map: "French geopolitics in Africa and Foccart's legacy" (1960-1991), from Bat's article in Afrique Contemporaine.
Map: “French geopolitics in Africa and Foccart’s legacy” (1960-1991), from Bat’s article in Afrique Contemporaine.

Jean-Pierre Bat
Research Associate, Centre for War, State and Society
Author of Le syndrome Foccart (2012)

In the first of his two-part Forum essay, Dr. Bat illuminates the distinct colonial and post-colonial history that helps explain current French military policy in Africa (1950s-present).

Today, the French Parliament will vote on the country’s present military engagement in the Central African Républic (CAR). Why? Because it remains a (poorly understood) constitutional requirement that any French military intervention overseas be approved by the National Assembly after every four months. Moreover, even if President Nicholas Sarkozy and his successor, François Hollande, have sought to republicanize France’s wars in Africa – dressing them in the clothes of democratic legitimacy and UN approval – the locations and priorities underpinning those interventions speak to a post-colonial inheritance dating back to the 1950s and the era of ‘Mr. Africa’, Jacques Foccart.

An event largely forgotten in France, the war of decolonization that began in earnest in 1955 in Cameroon against the Union des peuples du Cameroun (UPC or, in English, the Cameroon People’s Union) was not unlike the French war in Algeria. It also bore some resemblance to Britain’s ‘dirty war’ against the Mau Mau in Kenya. French operations against the UPC were constructed as a classic ‘counter-subversive’ action, a product – at least in the French military mind – of the contested end of Empire on the one hand, and the Cold war era struggle against Communist subversion on the other. And, according to the authors of Kamerun !, the war against the UPC  (which traversed the formal end of French rule continuing until 1972) led to the entrenchment of a postcolonial regime, which followed the same counter-subversive logic. With France’s formal decolonization from sub-Saharan Africa substantially accomplished by the end of 1960, the advent of independent states demanded the forging of new post-colonial client relationships with France.

Jacques Foccart, Charles de Gaulle’s long-serving presidential counsellor between 1958 and 1974 – and a man who soon acquired the epithet ‘Mr Africa’ – proposed a three dimensional military schema to accomplish this goal. The first entailed the signing of secret defence agreements; French assistance could then be requested by any client regime deemed to be a ‘friend of France’ should it be faced with otherwise uncontrollable disorder.

Depiction of French attack on the Baraka Camp in Libreville, February 1964, following the military Gabonese Coup against President M'Ba (6 H 49).
Depiction of French attack on the Baraka Camp in Libreville, February 1964, following the military Gabonese Coup against President M’Ba (6 H 49).

The concept was tested when, in February 1964, a coup took place in Libreville, capital of the former colony of Gabon, following the kidnap of President M’Ba. Managing a crisis cell from Paris, Foccart organized a French intervention that invoked those secret accords. Power was duly restored to Léon M’Ba, paving the way for Albert-Bernard Bongo to become President after M’Ba’s death, a post that Bongo would hold from 1967 until 2009.

The second aspect to Foccart’s African client politics, alongside the provision for intervention during a period of internal crisis, was that of ongoing military cooperation. French paratroop battalions were deployed throughout the pré carré (the exclusive zone of former French colonies), each of them established at permanent military bases. This longstanding military presence also presented the opportunity to promote French officers as African presidential counsellors, a notable example of which was Colonel Bocchino, a close aide to Madagascar’s President Philibert Tsiranana. Bocchino’s withdrawal figured among the first demands of Malagasy revolutionaries in 1972.

The third component of Foccart’s client politics was the construction of security ties founded on privileged intelligence provision, reflecting his own training in France’s intelligence service. Colonel Robert, Head of the African Department within the French overseas security service, the SDECE (the French counterpart to MI6), envisaged an intelligence network, partly based on cooperation in matters of counter-intelligence and counter-subversion with client African intelligence services, and partly based on black operations, which were exclusively conducted by the French security services.

Foccart was well aware that these military instruments counted for nothing until they were harnessed to a discreet political programme. The critical change in this context took place in the late 1960s. In 1969, after a preliminary operation in August 1968 (an event largely overlooked by a French public still reeling from the events of May ’68), France launched its first war in Africa

French military intelligence memo at the end of the Op. Limousin, 1972 (10 T 749)
French military intelligence memo at the end of the Op. Limousin, 1972 (10 T 749)

since the end of the Algeria war — this time in Chad. Known as Operation Limousin, this intervention would last for three years. With it, an important precedent had been set. In 1978, President Giscard d’Estaing thereafter launched Operation Tacaud in pursuit of a hidden war against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan regime. Giscard’s successor, President Mitterrand ultimately followed suit – illustrating an important continuity in what was depicted as French presidential pragmatism in African affairs. During the 1970s and on into the 1980s, France continued its efforts to undermine the Libyan regime through military actions in Chad.

President Giscard d’Estaing also proved that French forces considered themselves a vital strategic reserve for the conduct of the West’s Cold War actions in black Africa. In 1978 Foreign Legionnaires helped Zaire’s President Mobutu put down rebellion in the eastern province of Katanga, SDECE operatives also worked alongside their CIA counterparts during Angola’s protracted civil war, supporting the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi against the Marxist MPLA, which was in turn supported by Cuban forces and eastern bloc intelligence officers. Last but not least, President Giscard decided to recompose French influence in Central Africa in the late 1970s: on 21st September 1979, Operation Caban (SDECE black Operation) and Operation Barracuda (paratroops Operation) overthrew Marechal Bokassa in Bangui. This event became the symbol of French military intrusion in postcolonial Africa.

As these examples remind us, there is a distinct colonial and post-colonial history that helps explain current French military policy in Africa, one whose continuities have survived seemingly decisive changes of presidency in the Fifth Republic. It took the shock of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 for the intrinsic flaws of the Foccart system to be exposed. Their exposure opened a new era and new arguments over French military interventions just after the end of the Cold War – interventions that continue to the present day.

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