France has propped up regimes in Chad for decades. But it used to be much more discreet about it.
Between 3 and 6 February, the French army launched airstrikes against a rebel convoy in Chad. The intervention came at the request of Chadian authorities, who welcomed France's cooperation and the "neutralisation" of the fighters.
Considering the long history of French involvement in its former African colonies, there is nothing exceptional about these strikes. In fact, Chad has experienced more French military interventions since independence than any other African country.
But the justifications for France's presence and the military techniques have changed recently in important ways.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the former colonial power waged a counter-insurgency war against the Chad National Liberation Front (Frolinat). In 1986, France then established Operation Epervier (Sparrow hawk) to contain Libyan expansionism. Chadian dictator Hissène Habré - who was sentenced in 2017 for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture - was a key ally of France and the US against Gaddafi.
Then as now, France supported the existing regime in the name of "stability", and over the decades, France's military presence has allowed it to prop up subsequent regimes in Chad. They first supported Habré before switching allegiance to Idriss Déby who has been president since seizing power with French support in 1990.
Since then, Déby has faced several serious rebellions. In both April 2006 and February 2008, rebels even managed to reach the capital N'Djamena. France's support at these times was more discreet than today. It involved sharing intelligence with the Chadian army, "shows of force" (low-level flight over the rebel column) and warning shots. In 2008, it also included facilitating the supply of ammunition from Libya and protecting the capital's airport.
In 2019, however, the French approach has changed significantly. They are no longer content to create conditions favourable to a victory for the Chadian army: they launch airstrikes against rebels themselves.
Fighting terrorists or political rebels?
France's Operation Epervier remained active despite the resolution of the Chad-Libya conflict and the end of the Cold War until it was replaced in August 2014 by Operation Barkhane. This new French initiative absorbed Epervier in Chad and Operation Serval in Mali. With approximately 4,500 soldiers deployed in five Sahelian countries, Barkhane is currently the largest French deployment abroad.
Barkhane's objective is to support the "war on terror" in the Sahel and Sahara. However, its most recent targets have been rebels attempting to seize power in N'Djamena. These Chadian fighters are far from nice democrats. They use the rhetoric of democracy and change, but many were close to Déby before their defection. Timan Erdimi, leader of the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), who happens to be the president's cousin, was a pillar of the regime until he joined the rebellion in 2004.
Whatever we think of their past and current politics, however, the UFR has little to do with the jihadist armed groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin that France is purportedly in the region to combat. Chadian rebels, who found refuge in Libya and made alliances with other armed groups there and in Sudan, are driven by politics not ideology.
From a legal point of view, France's February intervention falls within the framework of a military cooperation agreement dating back to 1976 since when it has been interpreted excessively broadly. But unless we believe that anything that helps Déby is part of the fight against terrorism, there is little connection between France's February airstrikes and Barkhane's raison d'être.
Supporting Déby at all costs
Chadian authorities have strategically instrumentalised the "war on terror" by rebranding rebels as "mercenaries and terrorists". Since its army's intervention alongside the French in Mali in 2013, Déby has also played up the military diplomacy card and made himself indispensable to Western allies. As a result, the conflict-ridden country has acquired the status of regional power in just a few years.
Chad's army is currently engaged in the war against jihadist armed groups in the Sahel and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. It is now badly overstretched, however, and is facing difficulties in trying to cope with a rebellion on its own territory. This is especially the case as many soldiers and rebels have been recruited among the same ethnic groups and share strong social ties.
This is why France's airstrikes are particularly important. They are part of an escalation and are a sign that France is now supporting Déby at all costs while ignoring the regime's authoritarian practices and human rights violations.
In France, this means very little. Debates on foreign policy and its consequences in the Sahel are staggeringly poor. Few French MPs have voiced concern over the strikes. But in Chad, the role of the former colonial power does not go unnoticed and continues to fuel a strong anti-French sentiment.
The article is a translated version of "Que fait l'armée française au Tchad?" first published by Libération.