France feels strain of colonial legacy

Military presence reduced in Africa
Paris - The French government confirmed yesterday that it intended to reduce and rationalise its military presence in Africa, writes John Lichfield.

Alain Richard, the minister of defence, returning from a three-nation African tour, said the permanent French commitment would be reduced from seven bases to five and from 8,100 men to 6,000.

The previous centre-right government had been considering a similar retrenchment, partly for financial reasons but also as part of a less interventionist approach to the politics of its former colonies.

There has been speculation that the new Socialist-led government wanted to go further and faster, provoking arguments with President Jacques Chirac. But Mr Richard told the newspaper Liberation yesterday that the changes had the "full agreement" of the President.

He said the intention was to increase the mobility of the French troops available for African operations, allowing France to "do the same with less". The five main bases would be in Senegal, Gabon, Chad, Ivory Coast and in Djibouti (partly covering the Middle East). Bases in Cameroon and Central Africa would close, but a small contingent could remain at the airport at Bangui, the Central African capital, to maintain a bridgehead for possible future French operations. Although this is far from a complete abandonment of France's political and military role in Africa, it does reflect a new approach and a recognition of new realities.

Mr Richard hinted, without stating directly, that previous French policy had been based on a willingness to take sides in internal political quarrels.

In future, he said, the intention would be to come to the aid of threatened French citizens, to help to "stabilize" Africa but not to "arbitrate between rival forces".

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