Between 3 and 6 February this year French air force jets attacked a convoy of trucks carrying rebels in north-east Chad, who were advancing on the capital N’Djamena with the aim of overthrowing the regime of President Idriss Deby. Since the Nineties, France has repeatedly promised to reduce its interference in internal African politics without wider consultation, yet this was a unilateral French strike, ordered by Paris, that harked back to the days when France regularly intervened in the internal politics of its former colonies. The February 2019 strikes were also not without precedent. Chad is the country in which France has intervened the most frequently since political independence in 1960.
Yet several things were different about the 2019 intervention. French forces intervening in support of the incumbent regime was certainly not new. Nor was the fact that the intervention took place under the terms of the defence agreement between the French and Chadian governments and at the request of the Chadian president. Unlike in 2006 and 2008 – when rebels twice reached N'Djamena and Deby survived thanks to French military support, including supplying intelligence on rebel movements, transporting supplies for Deby’s troops and securing N’Djamena’s airport so that Chadian government forces could take off and land between attacks on rebel columns – in 2019 they went further and attacked the rebels themselves. The fact that the military forces and equipment deployed against the Chadian rebels were from Operation Barkhane was also a first. The French operation Barkhane was launched in August 2014 and is mandated to fight terrorism in five francophone countries of the western Sahel (the so-called G5 Sahel: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) and in the Lake Chad Basin, not to intervene in the internal politics of these states. However, maintaining the notion that the strikes were part of the ‘war on terrorism’, the Chadian authorities in a statement issued on 9 February described the rebels as ‘terrorists’ and claimed that more than 250 of them, including four of their leaders, had been captured and over forty of their vehicles destroyed.
France and Chad: an intertwined history
Chad is the lynchpin of France's geopolitical strategy in central Africa. It has been a privileged arena for French military interventions since independence and acts as a barometer of French commitment to its African clients.
In the 60s and 70s France intervened in support of Chadian government forces that were battling against the Front de libération nationale du Tchad (Frolinat). In 1982 Hissene Habré came to power with French support, France and the US having decided that he was best placed to counter the threat from Gadaffi's Libya. The following year France launched Operation Manta following the bombing of the strategically important Faya-Largeau strip in the north of the country by Libyan forces and less than two years later, when Libya invaded the north of Chad, France launched Operation Epervier with the aim of containing the Libyan incursion. The Chad–Libya conflict came to an end in October 1988. However, French troops did not leave.
Against the background of the ending of the Cold War, Habré's human rights abuses and dictatorial rule became too much for France, which did not intervene to prevent his overthrow by Idriss Deby. However, like his predecessor, Deby has ruled the country with an iron fist and faced constant resistance from political opponents. There have been coup attempts and political rebellions, individual rights and freedoms have been brutally repressed and Deby's security forces routinely commit serious human rights abuses. The French security guarantee has meant that, like his predecessor, Deby has had no incentive to introduce reforms to address the underlying economic and political causes of instability.
Thus, despite the changes in the historical context since 1960, the French presence in Chad and its military interventions in support of that presence have been a constant. This is because France attaches overriding importance to the stability of Chad, from where it monitors the Sahel and Sahara region and dispatches troops for interventions throughout the region. Its presence also deters Libyan expansionism.
Operation Serval and the rehabilitation of President Idriss Deby
When François Hollande became president in 2012 he promised, like several of his predecessors, to put an end to the incestuous, often corrupt relations characterised as Françafrique and recalibrate French relations with Africa. In particular, he promised a new partnership with Africa and an end to support for dictatorial regimes that abused human rights and democracy. He refused to invite Deby (and other authoritarian leaders such as DRC president Joseph Kabila) to the Elysée Palace, not least because leading members of his party were demanding to know what had happened to the opposition leader, Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, who had been 'disappeared' by government forces during the 2008 rebellion. In a huff due to Hollande's refusal to receive him, Deby boycotted the October 2012 “Sommet de la Francophonie”.
Having decided to launch Operation Serval in January 2013 to prevent Islamic militants in the north of Mali from marching on the capital Bamako, Hollande was desperate for African forces to be involved in order to deflect any possible accusation that this was another unilateral French military intervention in the internal political affairs of an African country. President Deby came forward and offered to deploy 2,000 troops from his presidential guard. French forces also relied heavily on Chadian support in their subsequent intervention in the Central African Republic, Operation Sangaris, in late 2013. This reliance on Chadian forces, together with Hollande’s praise of the “tighter security ties” between the two countries, reinforced Deby’s position. At the same time Deby has positioned Chad as a key player in the battle against Boko Haram, with N'Djamena established as the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), comprising units from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria with a mandate to bring an end to the Boko Haram insurgency.
As Operation Serval ended, Operation Barkhane was launched in its place on 1 August 2014. It is a long-term counterterrorism operation, a result of the merger of Operation Serval and Operation Épervier in Chad, involving up to 4,000 French troops, with forward operating bases in Mali and Niger. It is headquartered in N'Djamena, no doubt in large part as a reward for Chad's role in Operation Serval. Chad is part of the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force, set up to partner international forces in the fight against terrorism and transnational crime, and it is a major contributor to the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali, where it has suffered significant casualties. French support for Chad was unaffected by the transition from president Hollande to president Emmanuel Macron in 2017.
Chad: an indispensable ally in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel
A self-congratulatory 2015 parliamentary report stated that French support had promoted the construction of a state and armed forces "which are among the most solid in the region". However, as Nathaniel Powell argues, the impact of this support on the country’s politics and social fabric has been devastating.
President Deby has played his hand cleverly. By placing Chad at the centre of international efforts to counter terrorism in the Sahel, he has deflected attention from the domestic political and economic problems besetting his country. He has also successfully exploited the ambiguities of the ‘war on terrorism’ to brand political opponents as ‘terrorists’, a convenient shortcut that legitimises the "neutralisation" of rebel political movements.
These developments have provided a powerful disincentive to political reform in the country and have ended up contributing to "the very processes of political and social decomposition that French policymakers hoped to prevent".
Today’s interventions risk provoking similar outcomes. Chad is not a “stable” country. Deby's exploitation of regional and ethnic differences has stoked intercommunal and inter-ethnic violence, a pattern that is familiar across the region. Last month the regime declared a state of emergency.
An implosion of the Chadian state will undermine a powerful regional actor, with implications for France and the wider international coalition, including the African Union, that has joined with Chad to fight insecurity across the Sahel.
 10 Chadian peacekeepers were killed on 20 January 2019.
 Assemblée Nationale, Rapport d’Information no. 2777, May 20, 2015.
 Nathaniel K. Powell (2017), "Battling Instability? The Recurring Logic of French Military Interventions in Africa", African Security, 10:1, 47-72.