France’s Grudge Match with Qaddafi

March 21st, 2011 at 9:52 pm | 18 Comments |

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Many commentators seem surprised by France’s enthusiastic leadership of the intervention in Libya.  They should not be.  It arguably makes perfect sense that the French, so rigidly opposed to the overthrow of Saddam, and so reluctant to do any real fighting in Afghanistan, should be champing at the bit to send bombers to Benghazi and Qaddafi packing.

It is not simply a matter of Sarkozy opportunistically jumping into the hegemonic gap left by a feeble, ideologically torn American president. And it hardly needs to be said that it may have little to do with principle, or an urge to defend an oppressed people against a brutal tyrant.

But then France’s criteria for taking military action abroad, with or without UN approval, tend to be radically different to those of their fellow Western countries, with pride, prestige and cultural issues playing as important a role as economic self-interest or self-defense.

For instance, in the 1990s France supported the Hutu government in Rwanda and then sent troops to protect the fleeing Hutu Genocidaires, because it saw that regime as a French-speaking bulwark against the Anglophony of the invading Tutsi RPF.

When these odd – to British and American understanding – criteria are not at stake, French participation in allied interventions tends to be notably ineffective or even counter-productive, as in Afghanistan, or in Bosnia, where French officers actually warned Serb paramilitary forces of imminent NATO air strikes.

France’s conspicuous role in pushing for the current intervention in Libya no doubt had many motives, some of them conceivably quite altruistic, others less so. But two of the latter probably have much to do France’s ongoing quasi-imperial role in North Africa, and a Gallic hunger for vengeance  – the latter being a phenomenon that seems particularly hard for contemporary Anglo-Saxons to appreciate.

Put simply, France is finally taking revenge for the Libyan terrorist bomb that brought down UTA Flight 722 in 1989 – long forgotten everywhere but Paris – and for Muammar Qaddafi’s repeated military attempts to establish Libyan control over Chad and other French-speaking neighbors.

Even before the current crisis, a measure of Paris’ ongoing hostility to Qaddafi was the fact that France, normally so quick to befriend the most ruthless and murderous third world dictators, especially those with oil wells, surprised its Western allies when it opposed loosening sanctions on Libya in 2003.

To understand why French air force bombers tore into a column of Libyan army vehicles on Friday, it helps to know where some of those jets are based. It was not the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, but the dusty, sunbaked base in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. The landlocked country that sits south of Libya and smack in the middle of the continent became a French colony in 1920. Though it theoretically achieved independence in 1960, if you go to Chad, there is little to indicate that it is no longer an imperial possession.

At the swimming pool of the Novotel, shaven headed Foreign Legionnaires flirt with the wives of French officials. The currency is the French-African franc, excellent croissants may be bought all over the capital, there is a daily flight from Paris. The French embassy is like a fortress, and still the largest establishment in the country. Every morning and every evening the Mirages roar off from the airport to remind the natives who is really in charge here.

Since uranium and oil were discovered here, the French have become even more reluctant to leave, as the former dictator Hissene Habre discovered to his cost. He made the mistake of entertaining overtures from American oil companies. As a result, when the inevitable coup attempt came, with one of his former generals Idriss Deby leading a column of pick-up trucks from across the border in Sudan’s Darfur province, the French ensured his defeat.

I heard the story of what happened from a former soldier in Habre’s army, while we were driving by a long line of wrecked and rusting armored vehicles.  He described how he had been in a column of (French supplied) tanks and armored personnel carriers heading to meet Deby’s rebels. A French Army helicopter landed in front of the column and an officer told the Chadian general in charge that a ceasefire had been signed and that the force should return to the capital. As the column turned back in the direction it had come, more French helicopters appeared. And opened fire. With his armor thus shattered Habre was finished, and Deby took power. He too has faced rebel invasions speeding towards the capital, but so far the French have used their Mirages to give him early warning of their arrival.

For more than two decades the biggest threat to French dominance of Chad – and other Francophone countries in Central and West Africa has come from Libya. Qaddafi’s forces have battled those of Chad four times since 1978. During the first three invasions, in 1978, 1979 and the winter of 1980-81, the Libyans allied with local rebel forces, supporting their infantry with armored vehicles, artillery and air support. The third invasion resulted in the de facto partition of Chad in 1983 with Libyan forces controlling the country’s northern half, above the 16th parallel.

Fighting broke out again in 1986. But this time, in what was called the Toyota War a French-backed and equipped Chadian army was able to check the 300 tanks and Soviet-supplied helicopters of Libya’s expeditionary force.  Stunned by the reverse, Qaddafi sent his elite Revolutionary Guard into action and dispatched bombers into the south of Chad. The French responded with air strikes on Libyan airbases and Chad’s army proceeded to smash the Libyan force, eventually crossing into Libya itself. The French forced a ceasefire on their Chadian clients — who were also receiving American intelligence and advice — before they could launch their own invasion of Libya proper. By then Libya lost almost a tenth of its army, with some 7,500 troops killed, and Chad’s President Hissene Habre found himself in control of the long disputed, uranium rich Aouzou strip between the two countries.

In an act of revenge similar to the Pan Am 103 bombing over Libya, Qaddafi’s secret service apparently arranged the bombing of UTA flight 772 which was scheduled to fly to Paris from Brazzaville via Ndjamena on September 19, 1989. It blew up over Niger, forty-five minutes after leaving Ndjamena, killing all 115 passengers.

A French investigation found evidence of Libyan involvement and a French court later convicted in absentia six Libyan agents, including Qaddafi’s brother-in-law and deputy head of intelligence, Abdullah Senussi. Qaddafi of course refused to extradite them to France. Their getting away with mass murder has rankled the French state ever since.

Though it is twenty-one years since that act of lese majeste and mass murder, revenge must indeed be sweet. And the French can also enjoy the rare satisfaction of knowing that unlike the British they did not betray themselves or the victims of a blown-up airliner by the kind of deal with Qaddafi that saw Abdelhasset Megrahi released.


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18 Comments so far ↓

  • talkradiosucks.com

    Excellent read; thanks for giving some historical perspective on this. A much more plausible backdrop for this new war than the entirely Americentric theories we are usually bombarded with.

  • Bunker555

    A historical perspective is incomplete without mention of France’s nuclear program, and de Gaulle asking the US to basically “fuck off”.

    Rout of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, and the loss of then French Indochina, France’s interest in nuclear weapons to bolster its national prestige took a sharp upswing.

    The next blow to French morale, the humiliating Suez Crisis of October 1956, further intensified development efforts. The Crisis involved a joint British-French (and Israeli) invasion of Egypt. The U.S. vigorously opposed the invasion, and Britain’s commitment to it quickly collapsed. These events acted to make France deeply suspicious of relying on allies for support, an attitude instrumental in France’s later decision to abandon NATO’s defense structure and develop its own independent nuclear deterrent. It is probably no coincidence that on 30 November 1956 the Ministre des Armees and the CEA signed a memorandum committing them to arrange a nuclear weapon test.

    SOURCE: Origin of the Force de Frappe
    http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/France/FranceOrigin.html

    • hisgirlfriday

      This is why the posters on this site are great. Very interesting stuff.

      Speaking of the Suez Crisis, anyone have any good books to recommend on the subject?

      I am personally not a big fan of our current intervention of Libya (despite being one of the much more charitable to Obama posters on this site) and from the little bit I’ve read up on the Suez Crisis, which I find to have some interesting parallels to the current moment, I find myself wishing that Obama could be more like Ike in the Suez Crisis.

      And yet, I’ve also read that Eisenhower considered his failure to intervene in the Suez Crisis one of his biggest mistakes, yet I haven’t been able to discover exactly why that was a mistake for U.S. interests. (Other than it hurt the interests of allies France, UK and Israel)

      Also, was his regret of not intervening on behalf of France/UK/Israel in Egypt what set the U.S. on course for intervening in Vietnam?

      Just like it seems now we are intervening because Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power convinced Obama that it was a mistake for the U.S. not to intervene in Rwanda/Darfur etc… and that’s why we needed to intervene this time. *sigh*

  • hisgirlfriday

    Very interesting piece. I wish more journalism used history and cultural perspective to provide more context to current events as they unfold the way this piece did and I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with this obviously very knowledgeable author of this post.

    One thing however that I’ve read as I’m trying to get a handle on how the situation in Libya blew up the way it did is how many foreign countries that are now bombing the crap out of Gaddafi sold him the crap they are bombing now.

    So I guess I would argue that one thing that cuts against this piece’s hypothesis about France being so far above countries like UK in terms of consistent interest and never forgetting what Libya did to them as well is that France was the second biggest seller of arms to Libya in the EU, even above the UK and just barely behind Italy, in recent years.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/mar/01/eu-arms-exports-libya#data

  • Bunker555

    Another Charlie de Gaulle piece of wisdom:
    I have tried to lift France out of the mud. But she will return to her errors and vomitings. I cannot prevent the French from being French.

  • Bunker555

    Another de Gaulle gem:

    You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that are beyond imagination.

    He apparently had premonition.

  • ktward

    It is not simply a matter of Sarkozy opportunistically jumping into the hegemonic gap left by a feeble, ideologically torn American president.

    “feeble, ideologically torn American President.”
    Crikey, is that a red flag to consider the source or what.

    The author of this post, Jonathan Foreman, is a “writer-at-large for Standpoint Magazine”:
    http://www.webcitation.org/5upa6brDn

    [blockquote]Standpoint was launched to defend and celebrate Western civilisation from its apparently multiplying enemies … one former editor of a national broadsheet described it to The Independent as “a neocon rag”. “The neoconservative strain of thought has not been given a fair crack of the whip over here”, Johnson [Standpoint's founding editor] says.
    [/blockquote]

    Okay then.
    So, my take from this post is that France is strategically painted in the most heinous light possible– even via events utterly irrelevant to Libya — w/r/t her decades long conflict with … Qaddafi and Libya. (Did I fall down a rabbit hole somewhere?)

    Look, I realize that Sarkozy is surely exploiting UN 1973 for his own political purposes. (Equally breaking news, water is wet.) But this post veritably drips in neocon anti-Obama, anti-France spin, but with a curiously incongruent wrap: France is the hero.

    I don’t get the point of this post, other than the author deems it an opportunity to gratuitously smear France. And Obama.

  • proudtobefrench

    I fully agree with ktward. Your article seem fuelled by disrespect and basic ignorance both historical and cultural. The fact that a politician like Sarkozy is using everything he can to gain votes is not unique to french democracy. The fact that we did not go to war with pres. Bush Jr is actualy a good thing given the illegality of the action, the lies that were used in trying to justify it and the absolute mess it is now. By the way, it is not Obama who is perceived as feeble and ideologically torn in France but Bush Jr who reminded us of another feeble ideologicaly torn german man back in the 30′s. The fact that we tried to resist it is to put to our credit, although I can appreciate that just like some older germans, some americans still keep a degree of hatred against us. And by the way, yes France was also involved in injustifiable wars, we colonised, we forced millions to speak our language. We also lost wars, have been colonised, bombed, lost millions of people… so my advice to you is to try and reach a helicopter view before writing articles and get better informed. Otherwise you will be perceived as feeble and ideologically torn.

    • Churl

      “By the way, it is not Obama who is perceived as feeble and ideologically torn in France but Bush Jr who reminded us of another feeble ideologicaly torn german man back in the 30’s.”

      The fact that the French cannot distinguish between Bush and some German guy back in the 30′s might help explain Vichy – the government, that is, not the mineral water.

  • Smargalicious

    “What do you expect from a culture and a nation that exerted more of its national will fighting against DisneyWorld and Big Macs than the Nazis?” — Dennis Miller

    • proudtobefrench

      Remember we are cheese eating monkeys (and not big-mac) – and we wont surrender to it either :)

    • MAX IN PARIS

      Who is Dennis Miller?
      Disneyland Paris will blow 20 candles out next year!

    • MAX IN PARIS

      France lost 238000 military KIA and 330000 civilians killed (among them many resistants, 76000 jews, 60000 killed by allied bombings).
      USA: 416800 KIA and 1700 civilians killed.
      Unfortunatly our british ally fled across the Channel in 1940. We didn’t do much better.
      Outcome of 20 years of pacifism.

  • Carney

    Interesting stuff.

    I’d have no beef with France maintaining major influence amongst its former colonies, if it would stop denouncing American “imperialism”.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    I am with Ktward: “Look, I realize that Sarkozy is surely exploiting UN 1973 for his own political purposes. (Equally breaking news, water is wet.) But this post veritably drips in neocon anti-Obama, anti-France spin, but with a curiously incongruent wrap: France is the hero.
    I don’t get the point of this post, other than the author deems it an opportunity to gratuitously smear France. And Obama.”

    And why the author saw fit to drag Rwanda into this is beyond me. Somehow Sarkozy is channeling Mitterand? It is like he is saying: look at all the stuff I know about Africa and here is my grand theory how it all ties in together.

    Sarkozy is not channeling Mitterand anymore than Obama is channeling Reagan. Ktward got to the truth of the matter in one paragraph than was gotten to in the entire post.

  • MAX IN PARIS

    M. Foreman probably doesn’t know french troops are deployed in Kapissa province, where they engage talibans every day along with US troops (cjtf 82/101), and take casualties several times a week (the casualties rate of french troops is the very same that the US rate).
    During the war in Bosnia, France took half the casualties of all western countries (84 killed/167).
    “France, normally so quick to befriend the most ruthless and murderous third world dictators, especially those with oil wells”: Yes we learned that from the US government.
    About Chad: “Every morning and every evening the Mirages roar off from the airport to remind the natives who is really in charge here”: No, they just roar to take off like any US F-18 in Iraq.
    I was deployed in Chad in those days (1986/1987) in the french foreign legion (2nd REP/ 1st Cie), and I am pretty sure we didn’t kill 7500 Libyan soldiers (750 would be a great deal). I was myself bombed by a Tupolev 22 at Abéché airport during the summer of 1987, but can’t remember the exact day. The same day, another Tu22 was shot down above N’Djamena. The pilot was East German. Earlier this year I could also see some soviet tanks T54 or T55 north to Oum-Chalouba around the 16th paralell, where a big battle took place. There was maybe 6 or 7 tanks and some fair hair prisonners.
    “before they could launch their own invasion of Libya proper”: NO we didn’t invade Libya. Quite the contrary the Libyan army remained in northern Chad -Aouzou strip- until 1994.
    “He described how he had been in a column of (French supplied) tanks and armored personnel carriers”: there was no armored personnel carrier in Chad in 1990. But France supported the coup.
    I was only a soldier but what I can say is that already in these days people were complaining about the “arabization” and “islamiation” of black southerners enforced by Saudi Arabia and Soudan.

    About Rwanda: YES: the french government supported the Huttu gov. before the genocide, but NO : we didn’t send troops to protect the fleeing Huttu but to stop the killing of Tutsis (even those speaking english!), in a very confusing situation (hard to discriminate a Tutsi from a Huttu for a french soldier). What did the USA do at this time? Not because your gov. did nothing you must slander those who tryed their best.
    About North Africa: “France’s ongoing quasi-imperial role in North Africa, and a Gallic hunger for vengeance”, come on, be serious!
    M. Foreman, like many French or American citizens doesn’t understand that our ennemies don’t make any difference between us, and hate us the same way, and are delighted to see us fight each other.

  • MAX IN PARIS