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Dakar (AFP) Jan 08, 2014
A year after dispatching warplanes and troops to repel an Islamist incursion in Mali, France is fighting in another of its former colonies, demonstrating it is destined to play reluctant "gendarme" in Africa, say analysts.
With the Mali intervention deemed a success by the international community, France is withdrawing most of its soldiers but has launched another operation in the Central African Republic (CAR) to stop escalating inter-communal religious conflict.
France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has welcomed the achievements of Operation Serval, launched on January 11, 2013 to drive militants linked to Al-Qaeda out of Timbuktu and Mali's other northern cities.
The country has been "liberated" and the mission's success was "universally recognised in the international arena", he said on a New Year's Eve visit to Mali.
But he struck a more solemn tone two days later in Bangui, where the principal task was to boost the morale of troops bogged down in the quagmire of the CAR crisis.
About 7,000 French soldiers have been deployed in UN-backed military and humanitarian missions in Mali and the CAR.
'The gendarme of Africa'
"Broadly, you'd say -- and this has been the case for quite some time -- that France finds itself obliged to intervene and is, despite itself, the gendarme of Africa," said Bruno Tertrais of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.
With nearly 6,000 men permanently stationed across the continent, France is uniquely placed to act quickly when law and order breaks down and regimes collapse.
Its deployment is organised around two main poles, Libreville in the west (940 troops), and Djibouti in the east (2,000) and it also has troops in Chad (950), Senegal (350) and Ivory Coast (450), as well as special forces stationed notably in Niger.
With the gradual return to stability in Mali, the emergence of the CAR crisis and the more general threat of Islamist terrorism across the vast, ungovernable Sahel region, France is in the process of redrawing its military presence across Africa.
"I'm seeing the heads of state to discuss with them how we will in the coming months... reorganise and expand our presence geographically in Africa," Le Drian said Thursday last week in Bangui.
France intervened in Africa 19 times between 1962 and 1995, often to sway a state's internal politics under the murky "francafrique" system put in place by Charles de Gaulle to maintain political and business interests in the former colonies.
But it began to adopt a more multilateral approach under Jacques Chirac's 1995 to 2007 presidency, eschewing political meddling in favour of backing United Nations and African Union peacekeeping operations when crises arose.
In 2003 and 2008, France led European Union operations respectively to combat rebels in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and to secure the Central African and Chadian borders with Sudan's Darfur region.
France went into Ivory Coast in 2011 to help fighters loyal to election winner Alassane Ouattara arrest defeated former president Laurent Gbagbo and in the same year led an intervention in Libya to support rebels fighting Moamer Kadhafi.
Current President Francois Hollande underlined the new approach in a speech to Senegal's parliament in October 2012, vowing that the days of francafrique were over.
The broad approval both in Africa and in the West for France's intervention in Mali has created a climate which makes its operation in the CAR more palatable to its former colonies.
A year after Operation Serval was launched, the government in Bamako has reasserted itself through nationwide polls which saw former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected president and parliament reopened.
"At the institutional level, all is well... On the security front, things are more mixed," Bamako-based political analyst Souleymane Drabo told AFP.
"Overall security is largely restored in the regions of Timbuktu and Gao but there are still sporadic terrorist activities taking place there," he added.
The challenge for Mali now is to seek a peaceful settlement with its Tuareg separatist movement, restore its authority in the rebel bastion of Kidal and wipe out the Islamist insurgency.
The economy is also an urgent issue in a country ravaged by conflict and ranked 182nd of 187 nations in the 2012 Human Development Index.
In his New Year address, however, Keita put Mali's ongoing woes in perspective, recalling that before France's intervention "three-quarters of the country was in the hands of barbarian forces, jihadists... (who) did not think twice about rape, amputations, floggings, stonings, vandalism, executions".
Paul Melly and Vincent Darracq argued in a paper for the Chatham House think-tank published last year that Hollande's Africa strategy has amounted to rather more than the military action in Mali.
"He has attempted to refashion France's wider political approach towards the continent and make a distinct break from the message and policy priorities of the Sarkozy era.
"President Nicolas Sarkozy was self-confident and direct, but Hollande has shown a subtler ear for the tone of African diplomacy and how this can be used to productive effect."
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