10,000 In Africa Protest French Army

The Militant, Vol.60 no.23, 10 June 1996

Thousands of people poured into the streets of Bangui to protest French military attacks aimed at crushing an army rebellion in the Central African Republic that began May 18. An angry crowd of 10,000 people marched to the French embassy May 23. Another 1,500 demonstrators were blocked by French soldiers from marching on the presidential palace May 25. Protesters defied a ban on public rallies, as demonstrations continued for three days.

It took Paris's forces nine days to put down the rebellion by 200 soldiers—the second in as many months in the former French colony—and the ensuing anti-imperialist protests. Most of the soldiers were returned to barracks in French army vehicles May 27, after President Ange-Félix Patassé promised they would not be prosecuted. The next day, French soldiers continued to roam the streets of the capital, rounding up the remainder of those who participated in the revolt.

About 1,200 French troops armed with tanks and helicopter gunships took positions throughout the capital city of Bangui May 20. Some 3,000 French citizens and others were evacuated in preparation for the assault. U.S. deputy defense secretary John White said May 27 that Washington was sending in 25 more marines to guard the U.S. embassy along with the 32 marines who were flown to Bangui from Freetown, Sierra Leone, six days earlier. The U.S military recently escalated its intervention in Liberia as that country's seven-year civil war takes its toll on the population.

The French intervention included Mirage jet fighters and helicopter gunships launching volleys into Bangui. Hospital officials reported at least 50 people were killed. A French helicopter gunship fired on a van of rebel soldiers on May 22, killing nine people. When news spread of the imperialist military assault, protesters torched a French cultural center that burned to the ground. The people were shouting anti-French slogans, one of the evacuees told radio reporters.

The rebellious soldiers, who are called FACA or Armed Forces of Central Africa, are demanding payment of back wages and better working conditions. Many workers in the country also have not been paid for months. The uprising was the second revolt in two months over unpaid wages. FACA troops initially demanded the resignation of Patassé and of the head of the presidential guard, Col. Bedaya Djader.

Support for the leaders of the army rebellion, who have become popular heroes, reflects growing anger among African people at French domination on the continent. What justifies this kind of presence? asked an editorial from the Ivory Coast daily newspaper Le Jour. France comes to the rescue of dictators headlined another commentary in an Ivorian newspaper.

Since launching an assault on Gabon in 1964, Paris has militarily intervened on the African continent roughly every other year. In addition to the Central African Republic, French troops are deployed in Gabon, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Senegal, Chad, Djioubti, and the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mayotte. Paris has brokered so-called military cooperation agreements with governments of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi.

French president Jacques Chirac vowed to maintain the 8,700 soldiers in Africa. Paris's minister of foreign assistance, Jacques Godfrain, told the New York Times French forces will intervene each time an elected democratic power is overthrown by a coup d'état if a military cooperation agreement exists.

While Godfrain spoke of maintaining the democratic state, other government officials were more blunt about Paris's hunger for Africa's mineral wealth. When we aid a country, we must have a minimum in return, Bernard Debré, a former minister of foreign assistance, told Jeune Afrique. For France, Africa is also a market. Not a captive market, certainly, but not a sieve either.

The Central African Republic is among a number of mineral- rich African countries plundered by Paris. In 1992, 74 percent of the country's exports went to France. The main exports are coffee, diamonds, timber, and cotton. Some 414,277 carats of gem diamonds, 102,306 carats of industrial diamonds, and 154.86 kilograms (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) of gold were mined in 1992. There are also significant regions of uranium.

Meanwhile, living conditions for workers and peasants in the country are worsening. Life expectancy is 42.5 years and in 1992 the adult illiteracy rate was 62 percent.

The French colonized us, but they have seldom rendered us any services, said Gregory Mamélosson, a 35-year-old tailor. Under their thumb, this country's economy has not developed. Meanwhile, they are exploiting us, stealing our diamonds, manipulating our leaders, and giving us nothing to show for it.

What we were living was a disguised colonialism, remarked Appolonaire Bina Doumba, one of the protesters against the French military assault. In every office where anything is decided here you find a Frenchman. But these events represent an end of that era.