France has thrown down the gauntlet to its allies by sending troops to the Central African Republic (CAR), a mission that it says aims at thwarting a Rwandan-style bloodbath.
In France's second foreign military expedition in less than a year, President Francois Hollande dispatched 1600 troops to the chaotic country on December 5 as part of a UN-mandated operation to stem a spiralling sectarian conflict.
Deployed to support an African contingent, the French troops were immediately plunged into frontline operations, disarming Muslim rebels who had been on an orgy of massacres, rape and looting since March.
According to Amnesty International, about a thousand people were killed just before the French intervention as the rebels rampaged through the capital, Bangui, retaliating against the killing of 60 Muslims by Christian militiamen earlier.
Within four days of the start of Operation Sangaris, the dangers became clear when two privates in France's elite 8th Parachute Regiment were killed in a firefight while on night patrol in Bangui.
"The honour of France, the honour of its soldiers, is the unhesitating commitment to put an end to crimes against humanity," Hollande said at a ceremony in front of their coffins in Paris. He reiterated, though, that French forces would not be staying in the CAR "for the long term".
Analysts say the mission carries a far higher political and economic cost compared with France's intervention in Mali in January, when it crushed an Islamist revolt in the north. That country marked a return to democracy this month with elections.
Given the anarchic state of the CAR - a landlocked part of France's former colony French Equatorial Africa - and the high stakes of the operation, public support may be weak and Hollande's hopes for support from abroad is unlikely to yield much return, they say.
"I imagine he hopes that this will perhaps be like Mali, or how UK troops took on the West Side Boys," said Clionadh Raleigh, a professor at Sussex University, referring to a bloodthirsty militia group in Sierra Leone that was routed by the British SAS in 2000.
"But the CAR is not Mali, and there is no 'return to stability' because there was no stability in the first place. The problem is very familiar when it comes to interventions in certain countries. Is there anyone you really want to support, meaning, are any of these leaders good choices?"
The French public "might tolerate very few casualties, as the CAR is not a 'high value' state" for them, she added.
Eric Denece, director of the French Centre for Intelligence Studies, said there was a clear strategic need to intervene. "It is a problem of reputation, it is a problem of trust with an African state with whom we have various agreements," he told the Herald. "It would have been the first time we would have done nothing, and the other African countries would have been very surprised and disappointed." The public are broadly accepting of such missions, but worried especially about cost, said Denece.
A country whose population size is about the same as New Zealand, but with twice its area and only a hundredth of its per capita income, the CAR is a broken state. Its current President, Michel Djotodia, a Muslim, seized power in the majority-Christian nation in March, ousting Francois Bozize.
Djotodia then disbanded his militia, the Sedeka, but many of the rebels went out of control, and government forces were powerless to stop them. Senior US officials describe the country, where until the coup Muslims and Christians lived in harmony, as being in a "pre-genocidal" phase.
With costs of Operation Sangaris running at a reported €500,000 ($835,000) a day at a time when its military budget is under unprecedented strain, France is now pounding the drum for support from its allies. But the response is lukewarm.
Britain, Germany, Spain and Poland offered logistical support with military transport aircraft, while the European Union pledged €50 million and the United States around US$100 million to help finance the scheduled 6000 African troops to be sent under the UN flag. At a summit in Brussels late last week, EU President Herman van Rompuy said "the French response has helped avoid a civil war, perhaps even genocide".
But the French leader got only a figleaf response from the summit to his idea to place the operation under the EU's aegis - thus opening the way to financing it from the EU's budget - and establish a permanent European fund "to finance military operations for humanitarian ends".
EU foreign ministers will meet to discuss this on January 20 at their scheduled monthly meeting, but Germany and Austria, the big net contributors to the EU budget, are already wary over the decision-making process. "We cannot finance a military mission if we are not involved in the decision-making process," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, insisting on an official EU mandate - something that would require unanimity from all 28 nation-states and probably take weeks or even months to secure.
"When you launch an (EU) operation, it is important to be able to get agreement on it before hand. You can hand on the bill afterwards," said Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.
"For many observers, Mali was a test of joint European defence policy. And Europe did not pass it," a report by the French Senate's foreign affairs and defence committee said in July. "There is no independent European military capacity, nor any political will to purse a European defence policy."