A more active role for France forces?

With France playing a more active role in Afghanistan and the following are we seeing a new France?


France heads for war games in the Gulf

By Ben Hall in Paris and Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Published: February 23 2008 01:56 | Last updated: February 23 2008 01:56

French armed forces will take part in large-scale war games in the Gulf next week, underlining France’s growing military presence in the region as heightened tensions persist over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

France will deploy 1,500 personnel, two frigates and eight Mirage fighter jets to the defence exercises, held in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Paris has long-standing defence co-operation agreements with the two countries and is one of their biggest suppliers of arms. But its involvement in the joint manoeuvres, which have been code-named Gulf Shield, follows President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement last month of a permanent French base in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital.

The base, across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, will give France its first permanent foothold in the Gulf and will send a signal to Tehran that Paris is determined to protect its strategic interests in the region.

Iran has criticised Mr Sarkozy’s announcement as an “unfriendly” move.

“We believe such a presence is not conducive to peace and security in the region,” Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said at the time.

The French president has adopted a tougher stance than that of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, against Iran’s nuclear activities and is seeking stronger international sanctions against Tehran.

A UAE official said there was nothing new in French military exercises in the Gulf, but these war games come at a time of diplomatic manoeuvring.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, undertook some rare shuttle diplomacy this week, with visits to both Iran and its ally, Syria.

The French base will be contained within a UAE facility and will eventually house up to 400 personnel from the navy, army and air force. It is intended as a depot to support French maritime surveillance operations in the Gulf, allowing ships to spend more time in the region. A UAE official said it could develop into a more comprehensive base over time.

Although the base will be small, Mr Sarkozy described the new facility as a “strategic rupture” because, for the first time, France would be establishing a permanent base outside its former African colonies.

The US is the only other foreign power with a permanent base in the Gulf, in Bahrain.

The UAE installation could herald a much broader reorganisation of France’s overseas military deployments under a defence white paper expected in mid-April.

A senior French diplomat told the Financial Times recently that France was considering whether to close its base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, because it was too expensive.

However, Christophe Prazuck, the spokesman for the French chiefs of staff, said the Abu Dhabi facility was “not at the same level” as the Djibouti base, where nearly 3,000 French personnel are stationed. “This does not substitute our strategic interests in Africa,” he said.

A foreign ministry official said: “This doesn’t spell the end for Djibouti, but it spells the end for Djibouti as the only location of military support.”

Officials in Paris said that setting up a French base – opened at the request of the UAE under a 1995 defence accord – and conducting joint exercises in the Gulf were not designed to send a warning signal to Iran.

“However, if they feel under pressure, we would not want to disabuse them,” one official said.

François Heisbourg, an adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, based in Paris, said the planned base was a reminder to powers in the region that France fought alongside the US and the UK in the first Gulf war in 1990-91 in defence of its strategic interests.

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