France Recognizes the Islamic Threat

In little more than a year, France has intervened twice with military missions to counter Islamic violence in its former colonies in Africa. In January 2013 French forces were successful in beating back well-trained Islamist forces and al-Qaeda extremists who had captured part of Mali. In December 2013 France took the lead to try to end the violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) that had originally been started by Islamic armed groups. With the endorsement of the United Nations, and nominally supporting an African force, France intervened to restore law and order "by all necessary measures," in what is now a dysfunctional and chaotic society, and to provide humanitarian aid.

President François Hollande has said that France is not the gendarme of Africa. Nevertheless, France has realized that the price of intervention may be less than the price of non-action. The French actions in Mali and presently in CAR against Islamic intrusions in Africa illustrate a decisiveness and a coherent military strategy against the most important threat to Western civilization today. France's policy presents a stark contrast to the chronic indecisiveness, amateurism, and lack of strategic vision of the Obama Administration.

The United States is not now, and should not be, the arbiter of world politics, and few American decision makers would approve direct military involvement in international conflicts. Yet one expects a greater concern and a less passive attitude towards those conflicts -- above all those resulting from the threat of Islamic fundamentalism -- than has recently been the case with the Obama Administration. On November 20, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry was "deeply concerned by the ongoing crisis in CAR and the deplorable levels of violence and lawlessness that affect millions of people every day." Again, on December 26, he informed the world. "The U.S. is alarmed by the December 24 and 25 attacks in the CAR."

Although the number of atrocities was increasing and despite his statements of concern, Kerry then left to go on one of his ten trips to solve what he and the U.S. State Department considered more urgent, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The French response was different. In addition to 1,600 forces on the ground in CAR France sent special forces and combat helicopters to carry out strike against the Islamic jihadists, then used some of its other assets, including warplanes based in Chad, special forces based in Senegal, and armored units reassigned from activity in the Ivory Coast.

Since its independence in 1960, the CAR, a poor country despite its rich mineral deposits, with 4.6 million population, of whom 75% are Christian, can be regarded as a failed state, with a history of mutinies, rebellions, and five coups. That state could not counter the invasion of the country from the north in March 2013 of Seleka (alliance), a loose grouping of armed groups, in essence an Islamist movement linked to al-Qaeda in Maghreb (Aqmi) and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Seleka, aided by bandits, forces from Chad and Sudan, and mercenaries, attacked CAR, captured the capital, Bangui, and took over power. Many in the Muslim community supported Seleka in their hostility to the Christian community. The brutality on both sides has led to over 1,000 dead; more than half a million (almost one-fifth of the population) displaced from their homes; raping, looting, and pillaging; and widespread starvation.

These Seleka rebels overthrew the sitting president Francois Bozizé who had seized power in 2003, and replaced him with Michel Djototodia, a Soviet-trained politician and diplomat. He named himself president, the first Muslim leader of the majority Christian CAR. But unable to control the ensuing violence, Djototodia on January 11, 2014 was forced under pressure to quit his office and go into exile.

At present the country has no president while the transitional national council is searching for a candidate. In a sense the state of CAR has ceased to exist because of the Islamic invasion.

The picture of violence in the CAR for a time was fuzzy with the continuing vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks and the activity of Muslim gangs and mercenaries, many from Chad. It is now more explicitly one of sectarian, inter-communal violence and polarization between the Christian and Muslim communities in CAR, a situation already familiar in Chad and Cameroon.

In response to the Seleka violence, Christians and some animists formed self-defense units, so-called anti-balakas, (anti-sword), groups of peasants armed with machetes, who were supporters of the deposed president Francois Bozizé. The conflict may still be somewhat unclear, but it is essentially an ethno-religious one.

Differences between France and other countries on the conflict are meaningful. The U.S. has said it may begin flying Rwandan troops into the CAR in the near future. The UN and the European Union show similar lack of urgency. The EU proposal to send a battalion-sized force, perhaps 1,000 troops, has not yet been implemented. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared, "The UN may consider next month recommendations for a possible UN peacekeeping force."

France did not wait for "next month." France acted as soon as it became conscious of the need for action. French President François Hollande made the situation in the CAR a prominent section of his speech at the UN which then passed a resolution to take action. The UN Security Council in Resolution 2127 of December 5, 2013 did belatedly welcome the strengthening in CAR of French forces, 450 of whom were already there, as well authorizing for a year the deployment of 4,000 troops of MISCA (the African-led International Support Mission in CAR), which is supposed to do the fighting. MISCA had replaced FOMAC, a military force drawn from three countries in Central Africa. Before taking any further action the UN is waiting for a report on the deployment of the African Union troops.

These African armed units may play some role but France is in the forefront. France of course has historic ties with CAR, a country that has been is largely invisible from the screen of American policy. Between 1910 and 1960 the CAR was essentially a protectorate of France, as one of the four units of the French Equatorial African Federation. The CAR gained independence in 1960, but it has remained part of "Françafrique," the French special relationship with former African colonies.

France has no economic or imperial interests in CAR. French intervention in CAR can be understood as having occurred partly because of historical ties and partly to protect civilians, restore law and order, disarm the militias and armed groups, help rebuild the state, and stabilize the humanitarian situation. It can also be explained by a certain French eagerness to show it can still play a role on the international scene, if not a major one as in former years when Jacques Foccart, the adviser to presidents on African affairs, was said to have been a major force in shaping French policy on Africa.

Yet above all and most important, in the context of contemporary events, is the fact that France continues to take a strong stance against the spread of Islamic terrorism in general and the groups associated with al-Qaeda in particular. The United States and the UN should pay attention.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.