Paris maintains a heavy security presence in the Sahel, in part due to its historical role in West Africa — as well as its fears that a power vacuum in the region could affect France itself. Still, in its modern Africa policy, France has chosen to support local actors to guarantee security, rather than act on behalf of regional allies. If local governments prove too weak to address threats, however, France has shown it is willing to play the role of protector.
On Feb. 3, France's air force conducted several airstrikes against rebel forces in northern Chad after their 40-vehicle convoy crossed over from Libya. Following an unsuccessful strike by Chad, which had since Feb. 1 been monitoring the militants alongside France. French jets were dispatched from N'Djamena to halt the rebel movements. At first, the aircraft conducted a number of flybys in an attempt to deter the rebels; when this proved unsuccessful, the jets attacked the vehicles, reportedly dispersing the convoy.
Why It Matters
Since France's intervention in Mali in 2013 (and subsequently in the more regionally focused Operation Barkhane) the country's Africa-based troops have focused on fighting Islamist militancy. This airstrike, however, has pulled France back into its legacy role of providing direct support to African governments following an interval in which it had ceased to intervene directly on behalf of local leaders — as occurred when it opted not to prop up the Central African Republic's president, Francois Bozize, in the face of the Seleka rebellion.
The rebels who were hit on Feb. 3 appeared to belong to the CCMSR, a splinter group of the Union of Forces of Resistance, a rebel alliance that seeks to overthrow Chadian President Idriss Deby. The CCMSR has increased its activities in northern Chad over the past year but has so far failed to realistically pose a strategic threat to N'Djamena. The group has maintained a presence in southern Libya, meaning it is well placed to find additional recruits and hone its capabilities. In all likelihood, Chad and France's prompt response to the convoy's entrance from Libya stems from their desire to nip any larger rebellion in the bud.
And then there's the Libyan aspect to the strikes. France is currently cooperating with Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, a significant power broker in the country who leads the Libyan National Army. Hifter's power base is in the east, but his fighters have been conducting operations against a collection of Chadian smugglers, mercenaries and rebels operating in southern Libya; in fact, recent operations against them may have displaced the very rebels who crossed into Chad. As Paris attempts to eliminate the power vacuum in the Sahel with its regional operations, its ability to collaborate with local allies such as Hifter will become an important asset.
Around 3,000 French troops are stationed throughout the Sahel as part of the country's fight against Islamist militants. The forces operate primarily in a counterterrorism role, although they also engage in capacity-building efforts with regional partners. France, furthermore, has sought to boost the role of these regional partners through initiatives such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, albeit with mixed results.
At the same time, France has long backed Hifter, whose Libyan National Army has launched offensives in the Fezzan region of southern Libya against forces that included the rebel group operating in Chad. Hifter's efforts, in turn, have relieved some of the pressure on French operations. In the end, the French military is the main organizer of security operations in the region, but even if its official policy is to steer clear of direct engagement in local conflagrations, the limitations of local fighters will inevitably draw France to the front itself.