On the war on Tigray, France is divided between business and defence of human rights
Looting, possible war crimes, destruction of property and historical sites: testimonies from Tigray, a province at war since 4 November, are very worrying. Yet France remains discreet,and hopes to preserve its chances in a promising market.
Editor’s note: On 21 January, the French newspaper Mediapart published a paper: “En Ethiopie, la France partagée entre business et défense des droits humains” ( In Ethiopia, France is divided between business and defence of human rights). This article has a lot of unique information, which is not written about in the English media outlets. We are publishing a translation here because we believe it offers our readers valuable insights about France’s position on the war on Tigray, and likely other countries’ positions lured by promises of business in Ethiopia.
Looting, possible war crimes, destruction of property and historical sites: testimonies from Tigray, a province at war since 4 November, are very worrying. Yet France remains discreet,and hopes to preserve its chances in a promising market. The ambassador has a “constructive” exchange with the Minister of Education, the ambassador has a productive” exchange with the Special Advisor of the Prime Minister on economic issues, the ambassador is “very honoured” to receive the Minister of Energy to talk about the participation of French company to several major projects… On the social media of the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, it’s business as usual.
For those who follow the daily ordeal of the inhabitants of Tigray -region where the Ethiopian army and its allies are at war since 4 November -, photographs of these cordial encounters in the capital city, where they discuss in comfortable sofas, seem to be taken from a parallel world. Far, very far away, from a Tigray literally on fire and blood, where more than two million people have had to flee their homes, where there is a lack of water, electricity food and medicines, where it is likely that famine is used as a weapon of war by fighting forces and where humanitarians are still struggling to find a way out, while 2.3 million people need assistance, according to NGO assessments.
Clashes are between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian Federal Army supported by Amhara nationalist militias and Eritrean troops. “We are receiving consistent reports of violence targeting certain ethnic groups, murders, mass looting, rapes, returns of refugees and possible war crimes”, said the European Union High Representative for foreign affairs and security Josep Borrell, on 15 January. He announced at the same time that 88 million in aid for the Ethiopian government would be suspended. As of November 13, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet spoke about possible war crimes and called for the establishment of an international independent commission of enquiry to check it. On the eve of taking office, the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also publicly expressed concern about the situation.
However, one voice is missing from this concert of alerts: that of France. The Quai d’Orsay [French MFA] did produce only one communiqué concerning Tigray, on November 23rd, 2020. It consists of four agreed sentences on the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the condemnation of “ethnically motivated violence”.
As a diplomatic exploit, the word “war” does not appear in the report; that of “war crimes” even less so. There is no call to the belligerents (who aren’t even named), neither is there any call for an independent investigation of possible violations of human rights. The same elements of language were resumed three days later on the occasion of the visit of Ethiopia’s foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen in France.
“Embarrassing, at the very least”.
This strange French modesty begins to question, or even annoy certain European allies and number of researchers specialising in Ethiopia – who have been working for two and a half months to harvest the snippets of information that arrive from Tigray in spite of the cutting off of communications by the authorities.
“I have regular exchanges with the French embassy in Addis Ababa, since November. I questioned them on their position vis-à-vis the Ethiopian government, and I felt them very embarrassed”, says the independent researcher René Lefort, for whom French complacency vis-à-vis the government of Abiy Ahmed Ali is incomprehensible: “I don’t think they understand what this country is and what happens there. »
Beyond the moral questions raised by giving tacit support to a government which covered up or allowed violations of rights, support for Abiy Ahmed in Tigray is a major mistake in political analysis according to René Lefort: “The Frenchmen bet everything on him, while his authority is weak and his political line is only supported only by a minority of Ethiopians. »
The French reservation is in any case interpreted by the Ethiopian federal army and its allies as support from Paris. Sociologist Mehdi Labzae was in Tigray, in the region of Humera, up to mid-December: “In areas conquered by Amhara nationalists, to introduce yourself as French facilitates relations with combatants, who consider the French government as an ally. French declarations, or the absence of, suggest that the reciprocal is true”, notes the researcher, post-doctoral fellow at the Fondation de la Maison des human sciences (FMSH). “With an ambassador in Addis who acts as if nothing had happened… I find it embarrassing, at the very least. »
According to a foreign diplomatic source, France does not content to remain discreet about the situation in Tigray; it also slows down temptations of the European Union member states who would like to denounce more openly the attitude of Ethiopian authorities and their Eritrean allies. An attitude “sometimes frustrating”, deplores this source.
Asked by Mediapart about this “frustration” of some European allies, the French embassy in Addis Ababa sent us back to the Quai d’Orsay, which did not answer on this point (see below).
Refusal to answer about the creation of a commission of inquiry
To its European partners, but also to researchers and humanitarian organisations with whom they exchange information, French diplomats explain that the accusations of abuses targeting the Ethiopian army and its allies “are not confirmed”. The same applies to the presence of Eritrean troops on the spot – this presence was nevertheless confirmed by both the provisional authorities of Tigray and by a General of the Ethiopian army.
A position that is difficult to maintain… First of all because the Ethiopian government is preventing the gathering of evidences, by blocking communications with Tigray and by limiting access for humanitarian workers. Then because, despite this blockade, pieces of evidence accumulate: “We have information United Nations teams, NGOs who speak off the record, European citizens which are still in Tigray; we have also lists of victims, and more and more photos and videos”, explains one of the diplomats posted in Addis Ababa. Information to which the French embassy has access.
The French position is hardly tenable, finally, because if it cared so much about the facts, France would not be content to refuse to condemn the crimes until they are ‘confirmed’: it would argue for the creation of a commission of independent investigation that would finally allow to establish facts and point out the respective responsibilities of the TPLF, the Ethiopian army and its allies. Paris is in an ideal position to do so, since France has just been elected to sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council for three years. It could therefore, along with other Member States, request an extraordinary session on Ethiopia (the agreement of one third of the 47 Member States is needed) that would decide on the creation of a commission of enquiry on Tigray.
However, when asked by Mediapart about its support for the creation of such commission, the Quai d’Orsay has not wished to answer (see below). It assures to have “repeatedly called on the Ethiopian authorities to shed light on allegations of crimes and other violations of human rights”, without specifying by which channel.
In private interviews, diplomats from the embassy and the Quai d’Orsay ensure that this non-public denunciation is voluntary and strategic. It would aim not to offend the Ethiopian government publicly to “maintain a communication channel” to better convince him privately and possibly play a role as a mediator to find a way out of the conflict. “French diplomats told me, in summary: “We remain discreet because if one day there’s a mediation to be done, the government could turn towards us,” says René Lefort. An analysis “totally wrong”, according to the researcher: “Not only [Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed Ali does not want any mediation, but above all, even if he accepted it in principle, I don’t see why he would go to France rather than the United States, the European Union or the United Nations. »
Incidentally, even though the Ethiopian government wished France to be a mediator, nothing says that its main opponent, the TPLF, would accept the principle of mediation by a state which has passed the last few months to multiplying the signs of friendship towards Addis Ababa and could therefore hardly claim to be neutral.
A (quasi-) public silence to better advance files in private: the hypothesis is also put forward by the former French ambassador to Ethiopia Stéphane Gompertz. “It is possible that we prefer behind-the-scenes action, which can sometimes be a little more effective than big statements. It is generally the option favoured by the French diplomacy.” In support of this idea, the former ambassador – who was also Director Africa at the Quai d’Orsay – evokes discreet but successful work carried out in 2005 in order to release opposition figures.
If this is the current French strategy, its results are not very concrete for the moment. The near silence seems in reality to have other reasons for explanations: not to spoil the friendship between Emmanuel Macron and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and, above all, not to jeopardise the French commercial interests in a country seen as economically promising and politically strategic.
Upon his appointment in 2018, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was seen as a man of peace and a champion of democracy. His efforts to reconcile with neighbouring Eritrea are worth the Nobel Peace Prize; its reforms on freedom of the press or the release of political prisoners attracted the esteem of many foreign heads of state.
Is it a matter of style? The fact that they are both young, labelled as liberals, claiming a certain way of breaking the codes? Emmanuel Macron and Abiy Ahmed seem to be in any case particularly like each other. It’s said that during a visit from Macron to Addis Ababa in 2019, Abiy Ahmed insisted on driving himself the car taking the French president to an official dinner party.
When the Ethiopian prime minister took his functions, “the Germans, the French, the EU, nobody spared expenses on aid, everyone has aligned with him. Except that, as time went by, uneasiness has grown and the honeymoon has turned sour”, analyses a source in business circles in Addis Ababa. “The other states quickly became disillusioned. Not the French, for whom the honeymoon continued.»
In fact, the transformation of the Nobel Prize winner into a warlord does not seem to have altered this good relationship with the French President. Two weeks after the beginning of hostilities in Tigray, and while Abiy Ahmed was preparing to launch a “merciless” assault on the town of Mekele and its 400,000 inhabitants, Emmanuel Macron called the Ethiopian prime minister a “role model”. A few weeks later, still engaged in this conflict, Abiy Ahmed Ali found time to wish a speedy recovery to his “good friend” Macron, who had just been test positive for Covid.
For this source, the economic and commercial factor is essential: “The French have remained very positive because they are clearly positioned on the economic sector in Ethiopia: they did not have strong political interest, it’s not their zone of influence. But the economic interests, on the other hand, are important and are growing. It is potentially a huge market. »
A market considered promising
To conquer it, Paris employed great means. In March 2019, Emmanuel Macron travelled to Ethiopia with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian and seven French bosses to sign a series of agreements aimed at “promoting attractiveness of Ethiopia to French investors”.
French companies interested in this opening market are not the least: Orange (which intends to take advantage of the privatisation of the national company Ethio Telecom), the Castel group (which, through its subsidiary BGI, already holds 55% of the beer market), Bollore Logistics or Canal+, which plans to develop a range of services for local television.
French commercial interests are numerous and varied. Modernization of the Ethiopian electricity network Ethiopian ? Alstom (€36 million in 2011). The manufacture of the turbines for the huge Renaissance Dam? Alstom again (€250 million in 2013), which now has its sights set on railway projects. The “high service level” bus ” that will serve the Ethiopian capital? The French company Razel-Bec (public works subsidiary of the Fayat Group), which won the contract in 2020.
Shortly after he took up his post in October, the French ambassador Rémi Maréchaux congratulated himself: “The number of French companies in Ethiopia has doubled in five years. We are ready to work together towards more French investment. »
Last strategic area for the French: military cooperation and arms sales. The file was at the top of the pile during Emmanuel Macron’s visit in 2019. Minister Florence Parly, who was also on the trip, has signed a defence agreement with its Ethiopian counterpart as well as a letter of intention “for the implementation of an Ethiopian navy component with the support of France”.
A godsend for arms manufacturers and French military equipment, which were not long in coming, according to the specialised press, to show up for to get contracts. Among them, Airbus, which would like to sell combat helicopters to Ethiopia. The group was able to count on to defend its interests on the defence attaché of the French embassy in Addis Ababa (until September 2020) Stéphane Richou, himself a former commander of a combat helicopters regiment.
The Ethiopian Air Force has validated the Airbus offer for the acquisition of 18 military helicopters and two cargo planes in October 2020, but was still looking for funding. Has the triggering of the war in Tigray – where these helicopters might be used – drove Airbus and the Ministry of Armies to postpone or even cancel this sale?
Neither Airbus nor the Ministry wished to answer us on this subject.
In any case, business is continuing between the civilian Airbus branch and the Ethiopian government : on November 9, Ethiopian Airlines took delivery of two Airbus A350-900 for its fleet. On November 20 again, the French ambassador in Addis Ababa was still congratulating himself on a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO and added the “Airbus” hashtag.
As for France-Ethiopia military cooperation, it seems to continue normally, judging by the job offer for a French teacher at destination of Ethiopian military and police issued in December by the Directorate for Security and Defence Cooperation (DSSCC) of the Quai d’Orsay (a one-year contract to be filled on October 1st, 2021).
Questioned on 19 January about the project of creating an Ethiopian navy, on possible recent deliveries of weapons to Ethiopia and more generally, on military cooperation with Ethiopia and whether developments in Tigray could hamper it, the Ministry of Armies announced 48 hours later that it could not answer “given [the] time limits”. Mediapart proposed to the Ministry that it be given additional time to provide answers. The ministry has no longer taken action.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for its part, has not responded to any of the five specific questions Mediapart had submitted about the presence Eritrean troops, possible war crimes in Tigray and its military cooperation with Ethiopia in particular (see below).
However, its response condemns abuses committed in Tigray in more precise terms. France is “deeply concerned” by the humanitarian situation on the ground, “as well as by the allegations of human rights violations”, indicates the Quai d’Orsay, before calling for the cessation of hostilities and respect for international law by “all parties to the conflict”. But is this enough, and above all, is it not too late?
The latest information from Tigray evoke massacres that would have made several hundreds of deaths. Several videos are about possible killings in the town and the church of Aksum, from the end of November to the beginning of December. According to the Belgian organisation Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA) as well as a witness interviewed by Le Monde, Eritrean troops are said to have killed more than 750 people. In an interview posted online on January 17th, a man who claims to be a direct witness of these explains in Amharic that “the entire city, from the bus depot in the park, was covered with bodies”.
The attacks and destruction also concern priceless historical sites or those considered sacred. The Negash Mosque (site of the establishment of the first Ethiopian Muslims, from the time of the prophet Muhammad), dating from the 7th century, has been partially destroyed and looted. The oldest monastery in Ethiopia, the Orthodox monastery of Debre Damo (6th century), was also attacked.
Finally, Mediapart was able to consult a testimony by first-hand accounts of a massacre committed in Maryam Dengelat Church – carved into the rock between the 6th and 14th centuries by the first Christians of Ethiopia – which estimates that 80 people have been killed by the Eritrean army, including priests, elders and children. This testimony provides a list with the names of 35 victims.
“If this information is confirmed, this would begin to look like a strategy of annihilation, not only of the TPLF, but also of Tigray as historical and territorial identity”, comments researcher Éloi Ficquet, from EHESS.
On 19 January, we sent by e-mail to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the following questions :
- Does the Ministry have any information on the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray at present?
- A growing number of researchers and humanitarian actors express concerns about possible war crimes committed in Tigray by all parties to the conflict. Does the Ministry share this analysis?
- On which aspects is France militarily currently cooperating with Ethiopia? (training, sale of weapons and military hardware…)? Was it considered to suspend cooperation with regard to the latest developments in Tigray?
- As a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, does France support the creation of a commission of enquiry into the situation in Tigray?
- Finally, some diplomats from countries allied to France say that they feel a certain “frustration” towards French positions, considered too complacent vis-à-vis Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Does the Ministry wish to respond?
On 20 January, the Ministry sent us this answer:
“France is deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Tigray, as well as by the allegations of human rights violations. As Josep Borrell recalled on behalf of the European Union, it is essential that the hostilities totally cease, civilians are protected and that all parties to the conflict ensure respect for international humanitarian, including by ensuring the security of humanitarian workers.
We have repeatedly told our position on the imperative of humanitarian access and the protection of civilian populations to Ethiopian authorities, including through the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs during his meeting with the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister. We have also repeatedly called Ethiopian authorities to shed light on the allegations of crimes and other human rights violations. France has also expressed its support for the initiative of the Presidency of the African Union for seeking a political way out of the crisis.
France has also condemned with the utmost strength the attack on December 23rd that took place on the produced in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in western Ethiopia, which has made a large number of civilian victims and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.”
February 7, 2021 at 3:26 pm
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