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French troops go from heroes to villains in CAR

Six months after being welcomed as saviours in the Central African Republic, the 2,000 French soldiers in the country face growing hostility from a population accusing them of failing to curb interfaith violence.

French troops go from heroes to villains in CAR
Two girls stand next to a sign with anti-France graffiti and a Hindu swastika in the Muslim district of PK5 in Bangui on June 4th, 2014. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

France launched Operation Sangaris in its former colony in December to stop the violence that exploded after a March 2013 coup by the mainly Muslim rebels of the Seleka alliance in the majority-Christian country.

Civilians cheered the arrival of the French troops after enduring massacres by rogue Seleka fighters and then revenge killings targeting Muslim civilians that left the streets of the capital Bangui strewn with corpses.

But six months on, the landlocked African nation remains the scene of deadly clashes and its people are turning against their former heroes for failing to disarm rival sides.

Hostility towards the soldiers has been brewing for weeks in the former French colony. It peaked on May 28th when 17 people were massacred at a Bangui church and 27 were abducted, according to the United Nations, with no intervention by peacekeeping forces.

French troops were booed by residents over the weekend in Miskine, a Christian neighbourhood of Bangui near a Muslim one. In Muslim districts chants of "No to France!" and anti-French insults are now commonly heard.

"When they arrived, we had hope that they were going to disarm the country," said Noel Ngoulo, secretary general of Bangui University.

"But as time has gone on, the population noticed that the disarmament was delayed. People are angry at the French because they have the impression that the mission objective has changed, from a mission of disarmament to one of simple intervention."

'Manipulation by radicals'

Following a first phase of operations in Bangui, French forces secured the route linking the capital to the Cameroonian border, which is an essential supply corridor. In the east, they now operate in Bambari region, a "friction zone" where ex-Seleka members have set up a new general staff headquarters.

French special forces have been operational for the past few days in northern territory controlled by Seleka fighters from the flashpoint town of Ndele.

The French soldiers have tried to ensure their neutrality amid the near total exodus of the Muslim population from Bangui and other main towns, but Christian and Muslim militias each accuse France of aiding the other side.

In the Muslim neighbourhood of PK-5 in Bangui, "when the French arrived there was fear," said Oumarou, a physics professor, arguing that the military presence provoked "the anti-balaka … to launch attacks."

French military spokesman Gilles Jaron blamed rising anti-French sentiment on "manipulation by radical elements who want to turn the population against French soldiers."

General Dominique Trinquand, a former head of France's military mission to the United Nations, said that the "asymmetrical nature of combat" made the task of peacekeepers "very difficult", since roving gangs armed with machetes were up against troops in armoured vehicles.

Apart from sporadic peaks of violence, "we reached a certain level of use for military force," Jaron declared. "Now we have to establish the economic and political foundations" in a country with a barely functioning state and a ruined economy.

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TRAVEL

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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