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France's New Foreign Legions - PDF - / Send As Email
by Stephen Talbot
In Inquiry, March 20, 1978, pp. 19-22 - Previous Article / Next Article

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has intervened over the
past year in three African
wars, maintains troops or
military advisers in 17
African countries, and is w aggressively pursuing a
new policy of expanding its political
and economic influence throughout the
continent? The United States? Irre-
pressible Cuba? The Soviet Union?
China, perhaps? Non, c'est la France! The
veteran colonial power, whose Foreign
Legion once roamed over four million
square miles of French African territory,
is again boldly asserting itselfin African
affairs-to the delight of the Carter
France has a formidable, and grow-
ing, military presence in Africa. Ac-
cording to the latest available figures,
12,500 French soldiers are stationed in
five African countries and two nearby
Indian Ocean islands. Backing up
these troops is a mobile force d'interuen-
tion with a forward element in Senegal
and a larger unit (the 1 1 th parachute
division) poised in southern France.
The French troops in Senegal were
reinforced late last year in preparation
for a threatened intervention against
leftist guerrillas in the nearby Western
Sahara. The Los Angeles Times recently
quoted Western intelligence sources as
saying that French forces in Africa
"could take and hold-for at least a
day, until reinforcements arrive-any
capital in the former French colonies of
West Africa."
The French are also major arms
dealers in Africa. Although the French
government now says it will abide by
the new UN Security Council's manda-
tory arms embargo against South Af-
rica, for more than a decade France has
been the apartheid regime's main
source ofmodern weapons, supplying i t
with Mirage j e t fighters, 'Alouette
STEPHEIV TALBOT reports on Africa
f i r the International Bulletin.
Cuba may get
the headlines, but
la belle France
is the most II
actiue foreign
military power
in Africa .
helicopters, Panhard armored cars,
Cactus ground-to-air missiles, and
Daphne submarines. France also has a
booming arms trade in the rest of Af-
rica. Morocco, for example, has just
placed an order for 25 Mirage jets;
Gabon wants five simplified versions of
the Mirage; and the Ivory Coast and
Togo have just bought 11 Alpha jet
trainers, which France manufactures
with West Germany.
Ofinterest to Americans in all this is
that France-with its military clout
and arms sales-has suddenly emerged
as the United States's "strongest ally in
Africa," according to State Depart-
ment officials. President Valtry Gis-
card d'Estaing may still bristle at U.S.
dominance in Western Europe, but in
Africa, French policy has converged
with U.S. interests to such an extent
that Paris at times seems to have as-
sumed the role of an American surro-
gate. France, commented a recent issue
of Le Monde, is rapidly becoming "the
West's policeman in Africa"-from
conducting bombing raids against' the
Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sa-
hara to intervening covertly in Angola.
Three recent incidents-in Zaire, the
Western. Sahara, and South Africa-
illustrate the new Franco-American
President Mobutu Sese Seko
was in trouble. The country
was precariously close to bank-
ruptcy, Mobutu could not
muster a convincing display of
popular support in his own
capital, and rebels in Shaba province
were closing in on the copper mining
center of Kolwezi-the heart of Zaire's
economy. The rebels, who had entered
Shaba from exile in Angola, were being
welcomed by the local population,
which had long resented Mobutu's
rule. Mobutu's notoriously inept army
was retreating in embarrassing disar-
ray, and the small rebel force was, in
the words of one Western diplomat on
the scene, cutting through Shaba "like
a knife through butter." Insisting that
"as long as I live, we shall conquer,"
Mobutu-who calls himself "the
Guide"-immediately appealed to
Washington for emergency assistance,
presenting the Carter administration
with the first real test of its Africa pol-
icy. Although Mobutu had been cited
in a 1976 State Department report for
repeated violations of human rights, he
had every reason to expect aid from the
United States. He had taken power in
1965 with the active support of the CIA,
and Henry Kissinger had considered
him Washington's most important ally
among black African leaders. The
United States also had a substantial
economic stake to preserve in Zaire:
nearly $1 billion in direct investments
and more than $500 million in bank
loans. Citibank, Chase Manhattan,
and other Wall Street power-brokers
were particularly concerned that Zaire
not default on its estimated $3 billion
foreign debt-setting a precedent that
other debt-ridden Third World coun-
tries might be tempted to follow.
In this post-Vietnam War era, how-
ever, there were limits to what Carter
could do for an old client like Mobutu.
Congress would certainly not tolerate
dispatching troops to Zaire. And 19

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