RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For the second time this year, France has sent troops into an African country to try to quell violence. In January, the French military intervened in Mali to help liberate large areas of the country from radical jihadists. Last week, French soldiers went into Central African Republic to stop the sectarian killings.
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley takes a look at the long connection between France and Africa.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Once again, French television screens are full of images of joyous Africans welcoming French troops. In this news report from Central African Republic, crowds yell: Vive la France, as they run out to greet convoys of French soldiers. France has intervened recently not only in Mali and Central African Republic but also in Ivory Coast in 2011 to back a democratically elected president. That has prompted some to wonder if the country is slipping back into its old role of gendarme of Africa.
Harold Hyman, foreign policy analyst with BFM Television, says it's a different era now.
HAROLD HYMAN: A generation ago, France would support dictators. Today, the situation is different. If France does not go into a country that's in destruction and mayhem, there are demonstrations in the street from the diaspora of those countries - why aren't you helping us? So we've settled into this acceptance of a sort of big brother role.
BEARDSLEY: As France suffered its first casualties in Central African Republic this week, President Francois Hollande visited the capital, Bangui.
FRANCOIS HOLLAND: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: After bowing before the soldiers' coffins, he told the troops their mission to reconcile a people who have destroyed each other was difficult and noble.
HOLLAND: Vive la France.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: Hollande also said that if France hadn't gone into Central African Republic, no one would have. He's asked the EU to help fund the mission.
Roland Marchal is a sub-Saharan Africa specialist. He says France has no commercial interests in such a poor country. But together with Chad, it does have soldiers in a joint African Union peacekeeping mission in Mali and at six other bases in the region. He says France had no choice but to intervene in Central African Republic, known as CAR.
ROLAND MARCHAL: To leave CAR, wouldn't have been possible because that would have been a major humiliation for Chad, 'tis one of our best allies in Mali. And as well would have put us at loggerheads with the African Union and the region.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: This French news report from CAR shows Christian militia members ripping up Qurans. We want to cleanse this country of all Muslims, they say. Christian and Muslim militias have killed hundreds of civilians in recent days, drawing warnings from the U.N. that the country could slide into genocide.
Marchal says the memory of Rwanda, where a million Tutsis were killed while French soldiers stood by, is another reason France chose to intervene in Central African Republic.
MARCHAL: Our politicians, they don't want to repeat the debate that happened after Rwanda in France. For the French it was certainly a very, very significant crisis inside the military apparatus, as well as inside the political class.
BEARDSLEY: French presidents on the right and left have sent troops into Africa recently, and their ratings don't seem to suffer. Marchal says France seeks U.N. backing for its missions, which gives international legitimacy and a measure of cover if things do turn out badly.
And the French public is generally supportive, says TV commentator Harold Hyman.
HYMAN: The French public is accustomed to African operations. Places like Bangui, Bamako, Dakar, they're totally aware of these places. And a large proportion of people have been to at least one of them. So this is a big difference between France and the United States.
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BEARDSLEY: On the streets of Paris, France's intervention in Central African Republic resonates with people like Bruno Humbert.
BRUNO HUMBERT: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: If it's about economic interests, I'm against going in. But if it's to bring peace and limit the risks of terrorism, I'm all for it, he says.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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