On November 12, French president Emmanuel Macron and his Chadian counterpart, Idriss Déby, met in Paris, at the Peace Forum. Faced with the urgency of the situation in the Sahel, where the G5 military forces (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) have just suffered a major setback with the death of 50 Malian soldiers during a terrorist attack, France seems more than ever to rely on Chad and its army to restore security.
In December 2018, a joint press conference between president Macron and president Déby was held in N'Djaména. During their speeches, the two heads of state recalled the solid ties that have existed between the two countries since the 1960s, particularly in the area of military cooperation. In the current context of destabilization of the Sahel, affected by a whole series of security threats, the strengthening of bilateral cooperation between France and Chad highlights the unique link between the two countries.
Diplomatic and military relations between France and Chad are not new. They are part of a long history that goes far beyond the recent security context in the Sahel. France has long considered this Sahelian space a real strategic position that required a significant military presence. At the time of Chad's independence in 1960, France strengthened its presence in the country, in particular through constant military cooperation and protection of the existing regimes. The future of the various Chadian presidential regimes has therefore never ceased to be associated with France's political will and interests in the Sahel. Under the presidency of François Tombalbaye, particularly from 1966 to 1968, France committed its military forces to fighting the troops of the Frolinat (Front de libération nationale du Tchad), an armed movement created by Ibrahim Abatcha that would regularly threaten the north of the country, with the support of the Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi. From then on, a singular political and moral contract was established between Paris and N'Djaména: France needed Chad to ensure the permanence of its military presence in the Sahel. Chad needed France to be able to survive in this permanently threatening geopolitical environment.
The current privileged relationship between French authorities and president Déby is therefore not in itself a novelty. Idriss Déby came to power in 1990: without the support of France, which had an air-land military force on the spot with the ‘Épervier’ operation, his presidential future would have been severely compromised. This guarantee has also been very concretely transformed into military support for the Chadian regime when it was seriously threatened on several occasions by armed groups heading towards the capital. In 2008, the troops of the UFR (Union des Forces de la Résistance) led by Timan Erdimi, nephew of Déby, narrowly failed to storm the presidential palace and overthrow its occupant. Thanks to French assistance, particularly in terms of intelligence, Chadian troops were reportedly able to repel enemy forces.
France plays a role of external security power in Chad because it depends on this strategic territory to carry out its military commitments in the Sahel. A changeover of the Chadian regime would have an exorbitant and unthinkable geopolitical cost for Paris. This situation is all the more strategic because of the reinforcement of the French military presence in the Sahel following the "Serval" operation in Mali in 2013. During this large-scale operation, which targeted armed terrorist groups in northern Mali, the French military was able to rely primarily on Chadian troops to conduct their operations. The great resilience and offensive capacity of the Chadian forces was thus highly appreciated, particularly during the intense fighting against the armed groups of the MNLA, AQMI and Ansar Dine in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
Today deployed as part of operation "Barkhane", the French military system can also count on the G5 Sahel force launched in 2014, which includes Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania. Within such an unequally equipped, experienced and still poorly funded composite force, Chad is a priority partner, not only because it has seasoned troops, but also because of Déby's desire to present himself as a strong regional security actor in the Sahel. Idriss Déby is particularly sensitive to the risk of an extension of the area of influence of terrorist groups in the southern Sahel, particularly in the Lake Chad basin where Boko Haram is located. Above all, he has found this to be a security theme that he wishes to use to his advantage, to give Chad back a key role in security management. Attentively listened to among African presidents, the head of state of the republic of Chad understood, as soon as NATO intervened in Libya, the possible consequences for the future of the region’s security and the risk of “Somalisation”.
France maintains a close bilateral relationship with Chad, which remains, to this day, its main military and political partner in the Sahel. However, on the part of Paris such a link implies ensuring the stability of the Chadian regime in order to maintain Déby's confidence. This is the reason why French air forces carried out strikes against a column of pickup trucks carrying UFR fighters who were attacking the south of the country between 3 and 6 February 2019. While this operation was in no way in line with the mandate of Operation Barkhane, which aims to combat the spread of terrorism in the Sahel, it did once again protect the Chadian regime from any potential destabilization.
The Franco-Chadian partnership is an essential part of the security management architecture in the Sahel. This situation contrasts sharply with the new regional and collective approach initiated by the G5 Sahel. The main objective of the latter is to develop a regional security integration policy that is mutually beneficial to member countries and based on a transparent decision-making approach. It is also designed for the protection and development needs of populations affected by conflict and persistent violence in the Sahel. Within such a context, collaboration between France and Chad, while still necessary, remains associated with a traditional geopolitical representation of France's African policy, which continues to favour its bilateral relations with certain key African regimes. A strategy that can pay off for the security of the Sahel, but which is not without risks in the long term, especially considering the chronic political instability of the Chadian regime. Instability which, as for other states in the region, can only be reduced by the sustainable political, economic and social development of the populations of which they are composed.