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More Active French Military Role in Africa Gets Mixed Reviews

Nine months after French intervention in Ivory Coast, yet another African crisis is testing France's more muscular policy on the continent. This time, French forces are leading an interim United Nations force to try to quell the violence in eastern Congo.

Signs of France's reinvigorated Africa policy are everywhere. They were evident earlier this year, when the French government hosted two African summits, one of which cobbled together a tenuous peace agreement between Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and that country's rebel leaders.

Then earlier this month, French President Jacques Chirac made Africa a top item during a G8 summit in Evian, France. Among those invited to that conference were the five African leaders behind a new development plan for Africa, known as NEPAD. And earlier this year, Mr. Chirac paid the first head-of-state visit in years to France's former colony, Algeria.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin also pays regular visits to the continent, including a three-day trip to South Africa and Ghana that he began Thursday.

Its political leaders say France is not interested in simply promoting political and economic development in Africa, but also in helping the continent resolve at least some of its numerous armed conflicts.

That interest has been underscored by a two-week conference on managing African crises, which ends Friday, June 27 in Paris. In an opening address, Mr. de Villepin said France will no longer intervene unilaterally as it once did in Africa, during colonial and post-colonial days.

Today, Mr. de Villepin said, conflicts in Ivory Coast, Congo, and other African countries threaten to spread to other regions. For this reason, he said, neighboring countries, along with the international community, must have a role in resolving them.

Such sentiments are shared by a number of experts and diplomats. But France's recent experiences in both Ivory Coast and Congo show that intentions, however good, can be difficult to put into practice.

An example is the 4,000-strong French force now manning a cease-fire line in Ivory Coast. This is France's largest military presence in Africa in years. But while Ivory Coast now has a unity government and a tenuous cease-fire, it has yet to find real peace.

Nonetheless, analysts such as Alain Deletroz, vice president of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, believe France's military intervention in Ivory Coast prevented a widespread bloodbath.

"I think it was positive that France got engaged in this last year because otherwise, Ivory Coast, which is one of the pillars of ECOWAS, along with Nigeria, would have really gone down the same path as Liberia and Sierra Leone," he said. "And if the conflict in Ivory Coast can be resolved by negotiations, it will send a strong message to the region that you are not obliged to solve all internal conflicts with Kalashnikovs in your hands."

Mr. Deletroz also believes Ivory Coast could serve as a model for foreign intervention in countries like Liberia, where President Charles Taylor is under pressure from rebels demanding that he step down.

At the same time, Mr. Deletroz's Crisis Group has criticized the French-led mission in eastern Congo as insufficient in resolving clashes between rival ethnic militias, which by some estimates have left about 500 people dead since May.

Mr. Deletroz suggests that the 1,400-member peacekeeping force needs to grow to 10 times that size to do the job. The French government, along with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, has also called for an expanded troop presence.

But even with a larger force may not be enough. Other skeptics suggest that French and other foreign troops can only subdue, but not resolve, crises in Congo and elsewhere.

Malla Ari, a top government official in Niger who attended the Paris crisis conference, said problems such as poverty and lack of democracy must be addressed if crises in Africa are to be resolved. But so far, he argued, French and other foreign governments seem mainly interested in curbing the violence.

France's self-proclaimed more active role in promoting economic development and democracy in Africa has had varying results. During the G8 summit in Evian, for example, President Chirac unsuccessfully lobbied to end Western exports of subsidized agricultural goods to Africa, arguing that they hurt African farmers.

Nor has the European Union fulfilled Mr. Chirac's own expectations that it would match a million-dollar U.S. pledge to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in Africa.

Eritrea's ambassador to France, Hanna Simon, says she is still waiting for French policies toward Africa to turn into concrete achievements.

"What I see is France is trying to deepen its partnership with Africa," she said. "Is trying," continued Ms. Simon, but whether it will succeed or not is to be seen with time. But I think they are trying what they can."

Analysts also suggest that France is using its reinvigorated role in Africa to gain influence in other international spheres.

The diplomatic dispute over a war in Iraq was one case in point. Ahead of a key U.N. vote on Iraq earlier this year, Foreign Minister de Villepin paid special visits to three African countries sitting on the U.N. Security Council, to ensure that they would back French efforts to continue U.N. weapons inspections.

It is this mixture of diplomacy and physical intervention that has lately come to mark France's African policies. How successful these efforts are could take months, or even years, to become evident amid the complexities that are Africa.