FRANCE'S recent decision to drop its call for a national conference in Chad marks its most significant policy shift in Africa since it began urging democratic reforms in French-speaking Africa in 1989, senior French sources in the region say.
The decision is a recognition of the military government's lack of control over the country and the armed forces, which could deteriorate further in the face of public debate on the strategically important state's political future, these sources say.
"We are pragmatic," says one French source in the region. "If a government of national unity can bring elections than so be it. We study the reality. There's no plan as each country has its own rhythm. It's not necessarily the case that national conferences have to be held. In Chad, there's a risk that a national conference could marginalize those in power."
Chadian President Idriss Deby was defense minister under former dictator Hissein Habre. In the wake of the military's violent response to reform in Togo and Congo, diplomatic sources in N'Djamena believe multiparty national conference could turn Col. Idriss Deby into the victim of a public trial by supporters of the old regime and spark violence from armed forces who fear loss of privileges if they are demobilized.
Chad's armed forces are being reorganized by a team of 40 French military advisers in the face of strong opposition from all ranks to announced troop cuts.
A senior French source confirmed that France now sees national unity governments rather than conferences as the institutions that can create the conditions for democratic elections. Under such a system, members of the opposition would be appointed to high-ranking government positions.
The French source says there is no broad consensus in favor of a national conference in Chad. Consequently, France supported the recent appointment of Joseph Yodoyman, minister of planning and reconstruction under Mr. Habre, as prime minister.
Critics argue that the French policy change could undermine the credibility of conferences now under way in countries such as Zaire. Calls for the Zaire conference, voiced by France, Belgium, the United States, and most of Zaire's opposition leaders, have become the article of faith that distinguishes reformers from conservatives.
Without this demand, backed by former powers with influence in the region, critics say, the reformers will be deprived of their key demand in the face of military might of the dictators they are trying to overthrow.
France's shift could also be exploited by the existing dictators in the region, who may interpret it as a sign that Paris intends to exert less pressure on them to quit power.
So weak has the democratic process in the region become that in two years of unrest, only five mainland West African leaders have been removed - four by violence and only one, Benin's totally discredited former president, Mathieu Kerekou, by ballot box. Leaders in Chad, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have all fallen in military coups.
Deeply involved as it is in the reform process in West Africa, France has accepted the view that dictators in countries like Togo and Zaire, as well Deby's military rule, should be allowed to remain as the only way of attempting to control the military and maintain a semblance of national unity while democratic reforms are slowly introduced.