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France asked to keep troops in CAR until 2015

France's chances of making an swift exit from Central African Republic (CAR) appear slim with the leader of the strife-torn country pleading with Paris to keep its troops there until 2015.

France asked to keep troops in CAR until 2015
French president François Hollande meets French troops on a trip to the Central African Republic last year. Photo: AFP

The leader of the strife-torn Central African Republic asked French troops on Monday to stay until polls due in early 2015, as unabated sectarian violence wrecked Paris's hope of a quick exit.

Interim President Catherine Samba Panza's appeal to the former colonial power came three days after France's decision to boost its contingent to 2,000 and on the eve of a review of the CAR's deadly sectarian conflict by the UN Security Council.

"The interim president told us that they should stay until the elections, that is to stay until early 2015," French MP Elisabeth Guigou said in the capital Bangui.

When France launched operation Sangaris in December to prevent mass sectarian killing, President Francois Hollande envisioned a short deployment.

On Saturday however, with a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in full swing, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted that the French operation could last "longer than planned".

The French parliament is due to vote on February 25 on whether the 2,000 troops deployed in Central Africa can stay longer than their initial mandate, which expires in April.

The right-wing opposition has asked for clarity on the operation's goals but stopped short of calling for an early withdrawal.

"France cannot handle everything on its own," Guigou, a Hollande ally who chairs the parliament's foreign affairs committee, said after her meeting with Samba Panza.

10,000 troops needed

The European Union has pledged around 900 troops and the African Union has close to 6,000 already on the ground but the continent's mediator in the crisis said more were needed.

"To achieve a nationwide footprint we need an international contingent of at least 10,000," Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of the Republic of Congo, told French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview.

Major EU powers such as Britain and Germany have refused to commit soldiers, and diplomats say efforts are focusing on smaller countries.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said Monday that Helsinki could contribute up to 110 troops to the EU mission and criticised the slow reaction from the bloc.

"It could be something between 20 and 110… There is no decision on this yet," Tuomioja told AFP after meeting in Paris with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

"I would hope that in the future, the EU would be able to come together in a bit more rapid manner."

Amnesty International said last week that the mostly Christian anti-balaka vigilantes were attempting to exterminate the country's Muslim minority.

"'Ethnic cleansing' of Muslims has been carried out in the western part of the Central African Republic, the most populous part of the country, since early January 2014," Amnesty International said in a report.

The anti-balaka – "anti-machete" in the local Sango language – militias were initially self-defence groups formed in response to abuses committed by rogue ex-rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition that seized power in
March 2013.

With the remnants of Seleka on the back foot since France deployed its forces two months ago, most of the ongoing violence is now blamed on the anti-balaka's attacks.

Samba Panza, a Christian who took over as interim president last month from ex-Seleka boss Michel Djotodia, has said she was "going to go to war against the anti-balaka".

French and African troops have been unable to prevent mass looting and stem the cycle of revenge attacks.

The International Federation for Human Rights said Monday that several attacks by suspected Seleka gunmen had killed at least 22 people in the western town of Bang since February 13.

Atrocities, the fear of attacks and a lack of food have displaced a quarter of the country's population, while the United Nations and relief agencies estimate that at least two million people need humanitarian assistance

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Power points: What I learned driving 1,777km through France in an electric car

France is a land of many inventions including the cinema, cricket (a disputed claim admittedly) and the electric car, writes John Lichfield.

Power points: What I learned driving 1,777km through France in an electric car
The French government offers big subsidies to people who buy electric cars. Photo: AFP

Unfortunately, the French invented the electric car a century and a half too early.

In late 19th century, many French cars were electric-powered. They operated on giant batteries which could not be recharged. In the first decade of the 20th century, they were run off the road by the Model-T Ford and by cheap, untaxed petrol.

The second French coming of the electric car, post circa-2014, has been slow – despite government subsidies of €6,000 a car, raised to €7,000 from June.

Sales have jumped in the last two years. There are now reckoned to be over 80,000 private, electric cars on French roads – about 2 percent of the national fleet.

This month, I did my bit for the revolution. I drove a Renault Zoe for 1,777 kilometres from Normandy to the Atlantic Coast to Occitanie and back to Normandy.

 

The experience was, by turns, wonderful and frustrating.

Wonderful because we limited ourselves almost entirely to two-lane roads, rediscovering the vastness of France and its endless variety and beauty, often unknown or forgotten.

Wonderful, also, because the secondary road network in France has been so improved and is so well-maintained (whatever the Gilets Jaunes may say). Some of us recall the crumbling and dangerous N and D roads of the 1970s and 1980s.

Almost all of the roads that we travelled – many of them D-roads – were well-surfaced and had expensively remodelled junctions. France has become, overnight it seems, a land of one million roundabouts.

But what of electric travel in France in 2020? Is it a viable alternative to petrol or diesel?

Is it cheaper? How easy is it to find and use the public recharging points?

This is where the frustrations start.

Much depends on what kind of electric car you use. There are now 43 models available for sale in France, ranging from the expensive to the very expensive.

A Renault Zoe on the production line at Flins-sur-Seine in Yvelines. Photo: AFP

A top of the range Tesla costs €90,000; a bottom of the range Zoe costs €32,000 if you buy, rather than lease, the battery. This is between two and three times more than the equivalent petrol or diesel cars.

The government and regional subsidies help but they apply in full only to the cheaper models.

The cheapest Tesla gives you 500 kilometres of travel before you need to stop and recharge. My 2019 Zoe gives, in theory, 300km (actually it can be less, or more, depending on the ambient temperature, average speed and steepness of the terrain). The new version 2020 Zoe gives 395km.

I’ve had my Zoe for just over a year. It is intended as a city or local rural run-about. In that role, it is excellent.

It’s not a car for long-distances, unless you decide, as we did, to re-create the experience of “motoring” through France in the 1960s.

As soon as you travel at over 90kph, battery power melts alarmingly. Ditto when you go up steep hills but at least your battery recharges when you come down the other side.

Teslas, as I understand it, can travel at full autoroute speed without losing too much range. Other, cheaper (but not cheap) electric cars are more like the Zoe.

What about recharging when far from home? This is, in theory, simple. There are over 28,000 charging points in France. Most small towns and many large villages have them.

A charging point in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Photo: AFP

The problem is that they are operated by local or regional networks – or in the case of the super-fast ones, national or international networks. The prices vary. So do the connecting cables. So do the charging speeds.

Some order and common-sense has been brought to this jumble in the last year or so by badges or cards which give access to most (not all) of the charging bornes. I have joined Chargemap. Other cards are available.

In our Travels with Zoe, the cost of recharges at public bornes ranged from €10.26 to zero. The expensive one was in Perigueux in Dordogne. The free one was at a supermarket south of Limoges.

Free is good but we earned it by spending two hours of our Sunday in an empty supermarket carpark.

Lengths of re-charging time vary with the power of the borne. With our Zoe, a complete recharge at the most common points varied from four hours to two hours. At home it takes 12 hours. The new fast points claim to be able to recharge half a Tesla battery in half an hour.

Finding the bornes is, in theory, easy. There are several apps which list and locate them. In practise, they can be hard to spot. Once found, they are occasionally out of order or closed. In one town we visited, two charging stations were out of action and one had the wrong kind of connection.

For 1,777 km, I spent €26.54 on electricity. Of this €24.44 went on public charging points. The rest – €2.10 – is the estimated cost of three charges on house mains. By my estimate, a similar trip would cost €180 to €220 in petrol or diesel, depending on the size of the car. My estimated saving in autoroute tolls was €90.

On the other hand, the need to recharge for long periods meant that we spent three nights in hotels that we might otherwise have avoided. Cost: €300.

 

Conclusion one: The Zoe is not a car for speeding through France – and does not claim to be. It is a wonderful little car for care-free wandering carelessly La France Profonde (care-free but range-anxious).

For comparison, someone sent me an example of an 832 km Tesla journey in France which took ten hours with two recharges and cost €25.

Conclusion two: Buying an electric car – any electric car – is expensive and probably a bad idea. Their re-sale value is likely to be small as subsequent models improve.

Consider leasing instead. I did not buy my Zoe, I leased it – and its battery – for three years. I reckon that the saving in diesel alone has paid for the lease.

Conclusion three:  This time around, electric cars are here to stay. 

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