Why France Finally Anted Up More Troops

  • Share
  • Read Later
For more than a week, officials at France's Foreign and Defence Ministries have been doing a valiant but thankless spin job trying to justify France's miserly contribution to the beefed-up UN peacekeeping force for south Lebanon. An additional 200 men was regularly touted as "a doubling of the French UN contingent," and much was made of the 1700 military personnel offshore on French ships shuttling refugees to Cyprus. " We're the only country that has sent any new troops to UNIFIL so far," bristled one Defense Ministry official earlier this week. "The Americans are nowhere to be seen, neither are the Brits. We're even now getting unsolicited advice from the Danes, which is a bit much."

The spinners' jobs became easier Thursday night when President Jacques Chirac, the final arbiter of French foreign policy, said he was committing another two French battalions — 1,600 troops — to the UN mission. Chirac, in a televised address against the lush background of the Elysee Palace, said he had upped the number after receiving clarifications from the UN that the force's chain of command would be " simple and direct" and assurances from Lebanon and Israel "that French troops would be able to fulfil their mission on the ground."

In fact UN officials had been stressing for days that the rules of engagement did allow the UN troops a robust approach to self-defense. And there is no more clarity than there was last week as to how the Lebanese Army will effect the nearly impossible task of verifiably disarming Hizballah—nor any new guarantees of Israeli restraint if they spy evidence that they aren't. But on the eve of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, it was clearly no longer tenable for France, a key architect of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, to be seen as fearing to tread where others were ready to — particularly the Italians, 3,000 of whom have been promised to UNIFIL. If the guarantees were good enough for Rome—often derided in French military circles as providing "Club Med" troops—why wouldn't they be for Paris? After all, France is on the Security Council, helped write 1701, and considers Lebanon a vital area of foreign policy. Taking scoldings from George Bush and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi was bad enough. But even the Socialist opposition was making hay of France's reluctance, with Secretary-General Francois Hollande telling Le Monde that France " appears to be a spectator."

Now, balance has returned, for the better of both France and the beleaguered and delicate ceasefire. France already has some 15,000 troops deployed in peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations around the world. Its troops have learned through bitter experience what to do (i.e. robust rules of engagement in the Ivory Coast) and what not to do (i.e. the dangerously diffuse and lethargic chain of command in Bosnia). UNIFIL will profit greatly from their increased presence, particularly since their number will suffice to stifle the discussion about whether French General Alain Pellegrini should retain his command of the UNIFIL force; that might have become problematic if his government had only provided a few engineering companies. Pellegrini, an experienced and well-respected officer, will keep his command at least until February. After that - and maybe well before - what happens in Lebanon will be anybody's guess.