It had been six months since the new French president had settled into the Élysée Palace. On 28 November 2017, Emmanuel Macron was visiting the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Before an amphitheatre of students, he said: “France no longer has an African policy.”
This is part 5 of an 8-part series
It was 19 April 2021. A persistent rumour was circulating in the top-secret corridors of Franco-African politics. There were those who did not dare say it out loud and those who simply did not want to believe it… But the story spread, from one person “learning about it” to another: Idriss Déby Itno had been killed in fighting between his army and the rebels of the Front pour l’Alternance et la Aoncorde au Tchad (FACT) – a military and political organisation with the goal of overthrowing the Chadian government. In Paris, the headquarters of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), France’s foreign intelligence agency, was on high alert.
The ‘swimming pool’ – the DGSE’s other nickname, inherited from the sports arena located not far from its premises on Boulevard Mortier – had its ‘big ears’ in place.
In N’Djamena, the agency maintained excellent relations with Ahmed Kogri – the boss of Chad’s Agence Nationale de Sécurité (ANS) who spent part of his career in France and was trained at the DGSE. The powerful Kogri was an old friend to France’s foreign intelligence agency, so by the time Chad’s national broadcaster officially announced Marshal’s Déby death around noon on 20 April, the DGSE was a few hours ahead of schedule.
Déby Itno had in fact been dead for at least 36 hours, after having suffered a gunshot wound overnight on 18-19 April in Kanem, a province in the country’s north-west.
However, while the president’s body lay in the palace and Chadians were still unaware of the tragedy, realpolitik had already dictated what would happen next. A ‘family’ council met in N’Djamena, where members of the Déby family and the army’s top brass consolidated their hold on power. Haroun Kabadi, the president of the National Assembly and thus interim president under the Constitution, did not object.
As soon as news of the death was made official, the Assembly and the government were dissolved. An 18-month transitional government was set up, to be headed by one of the late Déby Itno’s sons, Mahamat Idriss Déby. The opposition and civil society lamented the power grab, but the Quai d’Orsay and Jean-Yves Le Drian – who had never hidden his friendship with the deceased – approved the move. At the Élysée Palace, Emmanuel Macron did the same. Three days later, the French president and his minister of foreign affairs landed at N’Djamena airport to pay their final respects to the late marshal.
We expected something else from Emmanuel Macron.
On 23 April, as Macron walked onto the ceremonial carpet laid out for the occasion, he was the only ‘Western’ president to have made the trip. He did not seem particularly tense, and even smiled a little. To his left, Mahamat Idriss Déby – who had not yet added Itno to his name – was wearing his four-star general’s uniform and a red beret.
Behind them were several members of the transitional military council and Jean-Yves Le Drian, whispering in the French head of state’s ear. The former defence minister, a regular in Chad, found himself at home in the heart of the ‘Franco-African’ family.
The same day in N’Djamena, Macron met with the new chief of Chad and Presidents Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso, Mohamed Bazoum of Niger and Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania. In a joint statement, they expressed their “support for the civil-military transition process for the stability of the region”. A source at the Élysée says: “There was no other realistic solution.”
“The rebels who had killed Déby Itno were still threatening the territorial integrity and stability of the country,” says a French diplomat. “A sufficiently strong and capable power was needed to prevent the implosion of Chad.” In the days following the funeral, Le Drian continued to repeat these same arguments to his interlocutors.
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Contacted during that time, one civil society leader in Chad told The Africa Report: “We expected something else from Emmanuel Macron. Basically, France is legitimising a coup d’état, a family and military takeover, in defiance of a constitution.” But our diplomatic source disagrees. “You have to put yourself in the context. In April 2021, France already had difficulties with the junta that overthrew Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali. It also knew that Burkina Faso could fall. In the Sahel, and particularly within the G5 Sahel, the only ones left were Mauritania and, above all, Niger and Chad.”
Paris did not see the death of Idriss Déby Itno and his succession as a coup d’état.
Chad was also the operational centre of Operation Barkhane as well as a key player in the Libyan crisis. “Paris insisted on the need to include civilians in the future transition, and N’Djamena more or less paid to keep its troops in the G5 Sahel,” says a source with knowledge of the dossier. “There was not much suspense. Emmanuel Macron needed the Chadians to disengage a little from the Sahel, and Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno did not want a break with the French, who had often defended his father against rebellions.”
“Paris did not see the death of Idriss Déby Itno and his succession as a coup d’état. There is a form of continuity in Chadian politics,” says a West African ambassador. “The French were ready to take note of Déby senior’s sixth term. Instead, they endorsed Déby’s son’s seizure of power for the same strategic reasons.”
READ MORE US carves out its own strategy for Chad
Was Emmanuel Macron caught up in realpolitik, that famous altar where so many pious wishes have been sacrificed? If, in Chad, the French president displayed calculated support for the military, he appeared on the offensive in Mali, multiplying condemnations throughout the year 2020 and supporting ECOWAS in its tug-of-war with Bamako, Assimi Goïta and Sadio Camara.
“The two situations were different,” says a person close to Macron. “In Chad, it was not a military coup, but the death of the president while in office, in special circumstances; and in Mali, we tried to work with the junta for many months, but it did not work. The Chadians are not necessarily exemplary, but the transition is holding and the political space is opening up, which was not the case in Mali, where the junta has clearly become more radical.”
However, the “double standard” reproach has stuck to the French president, despite his ability – both in a November 2017 speech in Ouagadougou and again in Montpellier four years later – to raise hopes in Africa by swaying public opinion.
Is France’s relationship with Africa “undergoing profound change” as Macron claimed at the Africa-France summit in October 2021? Or has realpolitik inexorably taken over? In Côte d’Ivoire, President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected for a third controversial term as was the Guinean Alpha Condé before him (and was since deposed by his own army).
“We have heard very little opposition from France. Why? Is this the same person who told young Africans that they should defend democracy and the rule of law?” says a member of the West African civil society.
‘A president needs allies first’
Regularly criticised for not having kept the promise made in Ouagadougou to support civil society, Paris defends having backed these three presidential terms in West Africa. “In Côte d’Ivoire, we have always been clear: Alassane Ouattara’s initial decision should have been not to stand for re-election and we even did some discreet work to push him in this direction,” says a source close to the French presidency.
“But the death of Amadou Gon Coulibaly, who could have succeeded him, changed everything.” In Conakry, Paris also did not frown upon criticism of Alpha Condé’s ambitions, especially when they were formulated by Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou.
Does Paris have the luxury of being a moral authority? No. And, in any case, should it be? It is up to the Africans to take these positions.
However, in this case, the French also remained discreet, with their intelligence services and their big bosses reminding political decision-makers of the importance of the Conakry port for certain French groups. “There may have been underhand initiatives to find a successor to Alpha who would suit French interests. But it couldn’t go too far because of the economic interests of certain large companies.
“In any case, we are always in the realm of realpolitik, even if it can sometimes be reconciled with the defending of certain values,” says a security source in Paris. “Macron cannot bear the concept of ‘La Françafrique’.”
“But he is the president and a president needs allies in the context of a crisis,” says a diplomat. “Does Paris have the luxury of being a moral authority? No. And, in any case, should it be? It is up to the Africans to take these positions.”
In November 2020, while visiting Niger, Jean-Yves Le Drian said “the quality of the elections” in the country, scheduled for one month later, would be “a reference for all of Africa”.
“What message does this send? Is this not a blank check for the ruling party?” says a civil society leader in Niamey. Mohamed Bazoum, elected despite the objections from part of the opposition, is today, with Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, Paris’ main ally in the Sahel.
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