The clearer it becomes what a masterful military execution France's overthrow of Emperor Bokassa was, the more it appears that France has stepped into a political quagmire in the Central African Republic.
France may have so much difficulty extricating itself quickly that there could be long-term damage to continued French predominance throughout its former African empire. That, in turn, could harm Western political interests in Afica generally.
The political consequence of France's carefully planned military operation has been a series of misadventurees that has damaged the carefully nurtured image of France as the wiesest and most reliable of African moderates and the only effective counterweight on the continent to the combined destabilizing influence of the Soviets, Cubans and , above all, the Libyans.
No sooner had French Foreign Minister Jean Francis-Poncet told a clearly skeptical French National Assembly that "the presence of our soldiers in Central Africa will be strictly limited in time and purpose, and it will cease as soon as the Central African authories express the desire," than Bokassa's successor was saying "If the life of the country requires it, [the French Army] will remain for more than 10 years."
It was only the last in a string of statements by the new Central African President David Dacko that were embarrassing to France. The French restored Dacko to power after they backed Bokassa for 14 years.
Dacko's comportment led a normally prudent man such as former French prime minister Pierre Messmer, one of the last French colonial governors in the region that colonial governors in the region that included the Central African Republic, to say of the country's new leader: "I'm afraid be doesn't have enough character and courage. If the French paratroops leave tomorrow, he will probably go with them."
French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's slogan of Africa for the Africans" and the constantly reepeated French principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states have predictably become a subject of great sacrcasm here.
But the French operation in Central Africa also violated a set of practical precepts that went far to preserve and extend French in fluence in Africa. As in the French paratroop rollback of the rebel invasion of Zaire's Shaba Province a year ago, these precepts in volved dealing with whoever was in power, using force only to stabilize existing governments and going in and getting out quickly after the achievement of carefully pinpointed military objectives.
"I can't see the French getting out of Central Africa for a long time," said an Africa observer of a Western embassy. "They've themselves responsible for the place now, and God knows how long it will be before the Central African Army and police are in any shape to take over again."
France this week dispatched a first contingent of 10 military and gendarmerie instructors to train a new Army and police force.
The old forces, made up of members of Bokassa's and Dacko's Mbaka tribe, which comprises just 6 percent of the total population, disappeared into the bush at the first news o the coup to avoid reprisals for atrocities in which they had participated.
Meanwhile, France's traditional African friends have been strangely silent on the French role in Bokassa's overthrow. French sources reductantly admit that their best friends in Africa privately disapproved of the French role in Bokassa's overthrow. French soruces reluctantly admit that their best friends in Africa privately disapproved of the French action -- the first instance in which French forces openly intervened against a government that Paris recognized diplomatically.
The African leaders saw this as a dangerous precedent that could be turned against them, French sources say. These sources cite one of the most respected leaders in French-speaking Africa privately decrying the hypocrisy of Western governments that work with despots and dictators in Eastern Europe and Asia but insist on high morality in Africa.
What this leader apparently failed to consider is that much of Africa remains a Western sphere of influence where Western publics know their governments still can impose their ideas. Elsewhere, the West is under less pressure to act because it no longer has the means to do so. Whatever commendations France gained outside africa for overthrowing a bloody tyrant, however late that action came, already has been counter-balanced inside Africa by the realization that the Central African Republic will remain under effective Franch military occupation for a long time.
The potential setback for France among Africans comes just as French political and economic influence was being extended beyond France's former colonies to those of Belgium, Portugal and even Britain. France has come to represent the last Western rampart to many countries.
The French also had acheived a major breakthrough among the "progressive" states of Africa in a spectacular reconciliation in January with Guinea's Sekou Toure, the only African leader of a former French possession to have refused to accept his independence as a gift from French President Charles de Gaulle.
After Giscard's visit to Guinea, no African leftist government needed to fear that public embraces with France would seem compromising. Now that French troops are keeping order in Bangui again, that is no longer self-evident.
The open show of who is the real power in French-speaking Africa seems bound to create a backlash on a continent full of governments sensitive to charges that decolonization was only a facade for what the Africans call "neocolonialism," -- the maintenance of Western economic rule.
Not least of the embarrassments admisistered to France by Dacko, restored as president after landing at Bangui Airport with the French paratroops Sept. 20, was his open admission that the French force brought him in. French spokesmen had been trying to obscure that.
Nor was France's drive for political influence in the Third World helped by Dacko's statement that "certain people call on the Cubans for help. Why shouldn't we appeal for French troops?"
Dacko compounded that by reappointing many of Bokassa's ministers. The walls of Bangui were covered with the slogan, "The god is gone, but the puppies remain." The French troops, greeted at first as liberators, later were subjected to hostile chants.
Before the overflow of Bokassa, the French had registered dramatic gains in Africa in the past year, especially with French displacement of the United States and Belgium, the former colonial master, as the leading outside force in Zaire. French influence of several Portuguese-speaking countries this spring at the annual summit between France and former French African colonies in Rwands (antoher former Belegian colony).
For the first time, one of those meeting was attended by an English speaking African state. Significantly enough, it was Liberia, whose origin as a settlement for freed American slaves makes it the closest thing inn Africa to a former U.S. colony.
The practical limitations on French influence is budgetary. French officials frankly say that they do not want to devote money to large countries such as Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, because they cannot afford an aid program that would be visible enough to reap big political benefits.
But the French are not neglecting any opportunities that they can afford. They deliberately have been restaffing their embassies in English-speaking diplomats who have the double mission of providing Paris with better political information and seeking out commercial opportunities for French companies.
already, large contracts in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana that formerly would have gone almost automatically to British companies have been awarded to French ones, thanks to the aggressive backing of new-style French embassies. But those English-speaking countries do not want to compromise themselves with anything that smacks of neoclonialism.