Nice Idea, Wrong Army

At last somebody was doing something about the massacres in Rwanda. France ordered 2,500 troops to the region last week in Operation Turquoise, a rescue mission that appeared to be a generous act of humanitarian good will. For troubled consciences in Europe and America, French action came as a relief; the Western democracies have watched in horror as vast atrocities swept Bosnia, Rwanda and other countries, but they've blanched at the prospect of intervening themselves. Nowhere has the guilt hung heavier than over France, where a political party even took its name from the Yugoslav conflict: Europe Begins at Sarajevo. So last week the French were enjoying their high moral ground. "If we can save one child, it will be worth it," said Defense Minister Francois Leotard.

The French soldiers may save lives. But more likely they will prove to be precisely the wrong group to police the bitter Rwandan conflict. The French have long supported the Hutus, who have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis in recent months. From 1990 to 1993 France sent weapons and advisers to prop up the Hutu-dominated government, and Western diplomats say that French military advisers actually joined the front lines to help stave off Tutsi rebels who came within 25 miles of the capital, Kigali, early last year. Critics even charge that the French trained Rwandan death squads, known as the Zero Network. In other words, the French are no honest brokers. "We will consider French soldiers on our soil as invaders," warned Jacques Bihozagara, the European representative for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi-dominated rebel movement that appears to be winning the civil war.

France claims that its current operation in Rwanda is purely humanitarian. But the French are old hands at self-interested meddling in Africa, which has four times as many French-speakers as France itself. To preserve their sphere of influence, they have intervened in nine African countries since 1962, often in support of unsavory pro-French regimes. The Rwandan rebels, who speak mostly English, believe Paris might help the Hutus, partly because they're Francophones.

Operation Turquoise has a very limited scope. French troops will patrol only in western Rwanda, and many will remain at base camps in neighboring Zaire. Leotard said the mission would terminate by August. Both the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity are trying to assemble a peacekeeping force, but it may not be deployed by the time the French depart. Even if they accomplish something, the French will face the same problem as the U.S. forces who left Somalia earlier this year: no one to take over the mission.

France's intervention seems to have been inspired mainly by its lame-duck socialist president. Francois Mitterrand, whose term ends next May, is tweaking Bill Clinton with the notion that France plays a high-minded, activist role in rescue operations -- by implication, America does not. The Rwanda mission could well be Mitterrand's final flourish. "He is thinking of his place in history," says a French official. But France's interference could actually escalate the fighting by making the suspicious Tutsi rebels more aggressive than ever. If so, the grand French gesture will have made the world more shy of foreign adventures, not less.