Central Africa

People attend mass at a camp for internally displaced persons close to the airport in Bangui. More than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in three weeks of sectarian violence in Bangui alone. (Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images / December 29, 2013)

For food, fashion and fast trains, few labels are more sought after, and rightly so, than "Made in France." But when it comes to the making and unmaking of empires, not so much. Take the case of the Central African Republic.

Three weeks ago, as bloody mayhem engulfed the CAR, François Hollande did what French presidents do best: He sent in the paratroops. With the blessing, and precious little else, of his European neighbors, Hollande declared his intention to protect 100 or so French nationals in Bangui, the capital, and to disarm both the outlawed Seleka fighters, overwhelmingly Muslim, and the vigilante anti-balaka (or "machete") militias, which are Christian. Yet the initial deployment of 250 soldiers proved ineffective. There are now 1,600 soldiers in the country, but a headline in the French newspaper Libération — "France ambushed in the CAR" — suggests that even this number is sorely inadequate.

To describe the Central African Republic as a "failed state" is to give it too much credit: It was never a state at all. Originally known as Ubangi-Shari, it emerged from French Equatorial Africa, a vast swath of territory that was slapped together by late 19th century France. The brutal land grab was justified in the name of "the civilizing mission," but the reality was quite different: French companies, keen on immediate profits, never bothered to develop the infrastructure necessary for long-term economic growth. Moreover, with a wink from local French administrators, they brutalized the indigenous peoples. Beaten, whipped and mutilated, workers were forced to meet staggeringly high rubber quotas. Many were forced to fight and die in two world wars for a nation that did not recognize them as equals. In the words of African novelist René Maran, the territory was a concentration camp.

The great blast of postwar decolonization shattered French Equatorial Africa into several independent nations, including Ubangi-Shari, which was newly baptized as the Central African Republic. Its charismatic leader, Barthélemy Boganda, died in a still-mysterious plane crash shortly before official independence, an event some have suggested was orchestrated by the French secret service, unhappy with Boganda's independent ways. For the next half a century, the Central African Republic became the stage where a succession of political rulers followed scripts made in France. Improvisation was permitted as long as it didn't stray far from French commercial needs and geopolitical imperatives.

Jean-Bédel Bokassa was, beyond doubt, the jewel in this post-imperial crown. A fanatical admirer of Napoleon, Bokassa, the head of the army, grabbed power in 1966 and promoted himself to emperor. As his biographer Brian Titley notes, the forest of military decorations was so dense that Bokassa's regal uniforms required braces, while his prisons were equally dense with prisoners whose ears were sliced off under the emperor's watchful gaze. Bokassa threw lavish parties where, according to some witnesses, he fed enemies to crocodiles and, on occasion, to guests.

France tolerated Bokassa's delusions of grandeur: Along with uranium reserves, his empire boasted diamond stockpiles, a resource benefiting, among others, French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Yet after a massacre of protesting students in Bangui, Giscard concluded that his gift-giving friend had become an embarrassment. In 1979, France stage-managed another coup, Operation Barracuda, bringing down the curtain on Bokassa's reign.

France's latest operation, named "Sangaris" after an African butterfly, is a very different creature. It is a humanitarian intervention, supported by the African Union and fueled by France's sins in Rwanda, where, as an ally (Belgium was the colonial overlord), it abetted the Hutus and then watched the genocide with arms folded.

The term "intervention," however, also measures the atrophied, conflicted reach of French power. Only last year, the CAR's then-president, François Bozizé, pleaded for French protection from Seleka-led rebels. But Hollande stiff-armed Bozizé — he was as determined to end the era of "Françafrique," with France playing Africa's gendarme, as he was to force France to live within straitened means.

But "Françafrique" insists on an encore. With Bozizé's fall — Michel Djotodia, the predominantly Christian nation's first Muslim ruler, took his place — what little stability the Central African Republic enjoyed has evaporated. In the 2013 United Nations Human Development Report, the CAR ranks 180 of the 186 nations surveyed, while Human Rights Watch estimates that since the latest coup, two-thirds of the children in certain regions do not attend school and nearly half a million citizens have been displaced by the factional strife. Perhaps the most dismal of statistics, however, is Amnesty International's estimate that more than 1,000 people have died since the French sent those first paratroops.

The ghosts of its own imperial past are haunting France. Hollande's government cannot, of course, be held responsible for the current chaos, but this does not absolve the nation it represents of the moral burden it assumed when it sprinkled tricolored flags across the heart of Africa. In 1926, the French novelist André Gide was deeply shaken by the crimes he witnessed in the region. As he wrote, "We have assumed responsibilities regarding [these people] that we have no right to evade. I know things to which I cannot reconcile myself." Will France, nearly a century later, make good on those responsibilities?

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston. His biography of Albert Camus was published in November.