PARIS >> France is coming to the rescue again, deploying soldiers in a former African colony to help stave off catastrophe — dirty work that Paris says it doesn’t really want. France has its eyes on a dynamic new Africa that is creating jobs, not conflicts.
But the image of France as the gendarme of Africa is hard to erase.
French troops deployed to deal with the deadly chaos in Central African Republic just as some 40 leaders from Africa, including the Central African Republic’s transitional prime minister, met in Paris on Friday and Saturday.
The summit made progress toward creating a French-trained African rapid reaction force to enable the continent to meet its own security needs — while allowing France to maintain ties to the region that may pay off economically in the longer term.
France’s idea of itself as a one-time colonial master cannot be easily shaken off, in Paris or among former colonies. The French empire unraveled in the 1960s, but a half-century later, African leaders routinely call for help, and the calls don’t often go ignored.
Since 2011, under two presidents from opposing political camps, France has intervened in four African countries: in Ivory Coast, on a joint mission in Libya, in Mali and now Central African Republic.
In January, France sent in 5,000 troops to Mali to quash al-Qaida and other radicals in the north seen as a terrorist threat to countries around the region. That dwarfs the mission in Central African Republic, where President Francois Hollande says 1,600 French troops will help some 6,000 African troops secure the nearly lawless country, where sectarian strife has grown after Muslim rebels ousted the president in March.
In both Mali and Central African Republic, Paris obtained African and international backing via the U.N. Security Council. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Saturday he’s "grateful to all the countries contributing with soldiers … and in particular to France for boosting its military support."
Yet Hollande doesn’t want France to be the first, and sometimes only, responder to emergencies in Africa. France tried over several months to not intervene in Central African Republic.
Hollande announced a push to change France’s role as savior to assistant at an African Union summit in Ethiopia in May, saying it is Africans who must assure their own security.
He is pushing for the AU’s rapid reaction force to be put in place in the coming months, and promised at the weekend summit to provide equipment and train 20,000 African troops a year for five years. The U.N. would fund peacekeeping operations once it’s fully operational. Until then, Hollande said the EU should pitch in money, "because the two continents are linked."
Hollande is not the first president to try to disassemble a heavy heritage, or profit from a continent whose image is changing from one of endless conflict to a burgeoning hub for investment.
Even the symbols of war are getting softer. The French move into Central African Republic is dubbed Operation Sangaris, after a local butterly. The 1979 intervention to depose Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Central African Republic dictator and self-proclaimed emperor accused of cannibalism, was called Operation Barracuda.
Extricating France from its colonial past, without abandoning traditional partners in time of need, can be complex. The paternalistic partnerships Paris cultivated for decades with former colonies lined pockets of dictators and dealers, and encouraged dependency. Today, the unwritten policy known as Franceafrique is officially disdained.
But Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita says that both sides remain bound to each other.
"France, alas, has a historic duty" to its ex-colonies, Keita said in an interview with the daily Le Monde. "When you have traveled the road together, as painful as it sometimes may have been, something remains …. We are condemned to walk together."
Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations, said that a decade from now France won’t be able to intervene as it is today. For one thing, budget squeezes won’t allow it to replace aging equipment.
"France doesn’t own enough planes to transport its own people," she said, noting that France had to rely on some transport aircraft furnished by partners to get in place in Mali.
"So there are many small gaps in terms of capacity," she said. And, she added, "There’s a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene."
The real question, she said, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"
That’s a question that has particularly haunted France since its failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where 800,000 people were killed. French troops were in the country when the massacre of minority Tutsis by Hutu militias began.
Rwanda has sometimes accused French troops of participating in the killings — which France flatly denies. But it acknowledges that it shares responsibility with the international community for not stopping the slaughter.
Meanwhile, Paris also wants a piece of the economic pie in a rising Africa, where average growth is above 5 percent. At the Africa summit, French officials reached a deal aimed at doubling trade with the continent by 2020.
"Too often we turn our gaze to the past … We don’t yet see that Africa is the continent of tomorrow, the continent of the future and that there is an opportunity," Hollande said.
Sarah DiLorenzo and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.