Commentary: Regime change a la Francais

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   March 14, 2003 at 6:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- There was a time when France was not so squeamish about regime change.

In fact, France has intervened militarily -- either to change regimes in sub-Saharan Africa or to restore deposed strongmen -- no less than 37 times since 1960. In some cases, Foreign Legion paratroopers were dispatched because a local leader (like the Central African Republic's Bokassa before he crowned himself emperor) was afraid his enemies were getting ready to dump him.

There was never any thought of going to the U.N. Security Council when France's national interest was deemed to be at stake in its former colonies.

In early September 1979, France's legendary spy chief, the late Alexandre de Marenches, informed President Giscard d'Estaing during their weekly tête-à-tête (no note takers) that Bokassa was in Libya and 72 Libyan "military advisers" had arrived in his capital, Bangui. Marenches' conclusion was that Bokassa was about to switch puppet masters and become Col. Moammar Gadhafi's stooge. Giscard did not respond. Marenches explained that he had a plan of action ready, "53 steps in less than one hour to put a new man in power -- David Dacko would be my preference -- and my men will be out of there in less than one hour." Giscard feigned disinterest, and France's two most powerful men went on to talk about other global hot spots.

Before leaving Giscard's Elysee Palace office, Marenches said, "Do I have your green light, Monsieur le President?" Giscard shrugged his shoulders without saying a word. Marenches took that to mean, "Yes, if you can guarantee success, and if you fail, it's your hide, not mine."

As head of the French CIA -- the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure or DGSE -- Marenches had his own special forces. Late afternoon Sept. 19, 1979, they put David Dacko, an exiled political leader from the Central African Empire, in a limousine aboard a Transall transport plane with a dozen commandos. A second Transall carried two jeeps and a score of France's best soldiers.

Marenches had also created a phony African news service that put out a story about an attempted coup in Bangui, the capital. AFP, the French news agency, immediately picked up the story and the duty man at the French Foreign Ministry woke up the French ambassador in Bangui and asked him what was happening. "Let me turn off the air conditioning as I can't hear anything," said the ambassador. Marenches had ordered the line tapped and was listening to the conversation. The ambassador said all was quiet in the streets. The spy chief merely wanted to test the country's military reaction to rumors of a coup.

When he determined there was none, he ordered the two planes to land.

Dacko was driven to the Bangui TV station to broadcast a proclamation that had been written for him by Marenches. It said that the "the bloody tyrant Bokassa has been deposed and I have assumed full powers as your new president." Marenches had also taken the precaution of pre-recording the proclamation -- as he later put it -- "in case Dacko got cold feet at the last minute."

Dacko ended his speech by announcing: "I have appealed to France to send troops immediately to ensure security in our capital."

One of the two jeeps carried satchels of francs, as they knew that Bokassa's imperial guards had not been paid in two months.

When they arrived at the palace, the French Special Forces shouted, "We have the money Bokassa stole from you." The guards quickly dropped their weapons and plunged into the money bags. Dacko's limousine then pulled up and drove through the gates. The mammon from Paris had done the trick.

As Marenches promised Giscard, his men had re-boarded the two Transall aircraft and were airborne on their way back to a French base in Senegal 58 minutes after they had landed. By dawn, David Dacko's appeal to France had been answered and Operation Barracuda was under way. Two companies of French Foreign Legion paratroopers landed in Bangui at dawn. Gadhafi's military advisers were flown home, and Bokassa went into exile.

It was Libya, not the diamonds Bokassa once gave Giscard, that triggered the French regime change operation in Bangui. Paris intervened militarily on two separate occasions to save Zaire's late kleptomaniac President Mobutu. In 1977, French Foreign Legionnaires dropped into Kolwezi, the capital of Shaba province, to try to keep Mobutu's country from falling apart. The next year, the French returned to Shaba, this time ferrying Moroccan troops to keep the peace. In 1991, a thousand French paratroopers were dispatched to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo), to protect Mobutu against his rioting population.

Today, the French military are trying to separate rebel from government forces in the Ivory Coast. They have saved both French and American lives there.

When it comes to French national interests, the United Nations does not exist, and regime change is always an option. In Chad, from 1968 to 1972, French forces helped defend President Tombalbaye against the Tibesti rebellion led by Hissene Habre. Then in 1983-84, the French threw their weight behind regime change with some 4,000 men -- Operation Manta -- to prop up Hissene Habre. In 1986, the French came back with 900 men -- Operation Hawk -- for more prop work.

France has been a self-appointed African cop on the sub-Saharan beat ever since French West Africa and Equatorial Africa spawned 13 independent states in 1960.

French public opinion has demonstrated in countless surveys that it isn't too interested in regime change operations in black Africa.

Iraq is a different story.

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