The French army – to do what?

French soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines lmarch in the annual Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysees in Paris, July 14, 2017. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro

Our armed forces are in the spotlight this July 14, as they march through the centre of Paris. They are the only European forces to be fighting.

More than 5,000 French soldiers are engaged in Operation Barkhane, which, since 2014, seeks to eradicate armed jihadist groups in the Sahel. They are destabilising three former French colonies, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. These three states represent an area more than six times the size of French territory.

Due to their galloping demography, they now have more than sixty million inhabitants. The French war in the Sahel began in January 2013 with the intervention of special forces to save Bamako, which was threatened by a column of jihadist 4×4 vehicles driving down the Niger River.

This action was necessary, if only to protect the French in Mali. Historically, it also appears as a moral requirement. By overthrowing Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, France has caused a destabilisation of the entire region.

But the duration of the French war in Mali now exceeds that of the Second World War. If, on the ground, the French are capable of obtaining tactical victories against this or that Islamist group, they are strategically retreating. Civil peace in the Sahel continues to regress. 

With gigantic resources, the Americans have not managed, in 18 years, to stabilise Afghanistan. Will France succeed where the United States has failed? Does she want to find herself in their situation? There is no question of triggering a hasty departure of French forces from the Sahel, but it is high time to answer a long-term question: our armies, to do what? 

As we no longer have the means, either political, diplomatic, moral, military or financial, to carry out the “civilising mission of colonisation” dear to Jules Ferry, our armies are not intended to stabilise entire regions of Africa for long periods. They can, within the framework of international legality, resolve a deleterious political impasse, as they did in Côte d’Ivoire in April 2011.

They can also intervene to exfiltrate European nationals endangered by ethnic conflict, as was the case in Congo in June 1997. Above all, however, they must not allow themselves to be dragged into the long-term administration of failed territories. And even less should they support rotten regimes at arm’s length. 

In 1960, France freely decided to decolonise its African territories. We must not to return to it, by the back door, sixty years later. The era of Fort Saganne is over. Today, French armed forces must focus on two major missions: preserving France’s independence and protecting its interests in the world.

This is the road map that we must give to our five major commands: the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, cyber defence and space defence.

Why did President de Gaulle, from 1959 to 1969, devote so much effort to building a credible nuclear deterrent? For him, it had a twofold objective: to prevent any blackmail against France by a possibly hostile nuclear power (the Soviet Union, for example); and to avoid any American blackmail for protection. This need for independence is as compelling today as it was in the general’s time. 

The incident which, on 10 June, off Misrata, pitted the Turkish navy against a French vessel clearly pleads for the reinforcement of the French navy in the Mediterranean. In October 2019, at the request of Nicosia, frigates were deployed in Cypriot waters (where Total has obtained drilling permits), in order to dissuade the Turks from prospecting in an Exclusive Economic Zone that does not belong to them.

Generally speaking, France must prepare to better defend its Exclusive Economic Zone which, with its 11 million km2, is the second largest in the world. Over the past ten years or so, two other areas have emerged that need to be defended: the digital and the extra-atmospheric. 

Every day, French high-tech companies are subjected to foreign cyber attacks, and hostile implants are slipped into the country’s infrastructure. As for our satellites, which provide the vast majority of our communications, we cannot put them at the slightest risk of paralysis.

Faced with the increase in modern, unclaimed attacks from authoritarian regimes, which remain below the threshold of open hostilities, France must be more proactive, never forgetting that the best deterrent will always be the ability to respond at the same level.

This article was first published in Le Figaro.

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