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Without bin Laden, French see Afghan war in new light

Video by Julien FANCIULLI , Yuka ROYER

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-05-04

Some French officials have questioned France's continued involvement in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan after the removal of the al Qaeda figurehead, though the government remains committed and public opinion is still supportive.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated US President Barack Obama on Monday on his “determination” to hunt down Osama bin Laden. The terrorist who topped the US’ most wanted list had once threatened to hit France and its citizens in one of his customary audio messages.

Less than six months ago, bin Laden singled out France in what would prove to be his last recorded threat. In it, he warned that the French law banning the full Islamic veil, and especially the presence of French troops in Afghanistan, were dangerous for the country.

"The way to preserve your security is to end all aspects of your injustices against our Muslim nation, the most important of which is for you to withdraw from (former US president George W.) Bush's loathed war in Afghanistan," bin Laden said.

In response, Sarkozy said the country would not let “anyone and certainly not terrorists dictate its policy.” His unyielding insistance that France’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan as part of the NATO coalition would not be put under review was at the time espoused by virtually the political establishment.

But now that bin Laden’s body and reputation has been made into fish food, the French are returning to the subject of Afghanistan and reconsidering the country’s military involvement in the war and corruption-ravaged country.

On Tuesday, Axel Poniatowski, an MP for the ruling UMP party and the chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, told France Info radio that he would push for a “gradual withdrawal” of troops from Afghanistan.

Socialist MP Jean-Michel Boucheron, also a member of the committee, said in a statement that bin Laden’s death would force France to “question the size and nature” of its military presence in Afghanistan.

In a seeming effort to pre-empt calls for troop withdrawals, France’s defence minister, Gérard Longuet, told French journalists in Paris on Monday that the mission of French troops in Afghanistan was to ensure people’s safety, not to remove Bin Laden.

Public opinion matters

Largely eclipsed by the tumultuous events in the Arab world, the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda could also attract attention in the run-up to next year’s pivotal presidential election. Fifty-six French soldiers have been killed  in Afghanistan since 2001.

For Khattar Abou Diab, a professor at Paris Sud university and co-author of the Islamist World Dictionary, most French people believe that the fight against al Qaeda is “justified and needs time”, but public opinion could change if “French hostages are targeted in retaliation for bin Laden’s death.”

Five French nationals are among several people held captive by al Qaeda’s North African branch, know by its acronym AQIM. In addition, two French journalists are held in Afghanistan. The French press has naturally speculated about the fate of these hostages at a time when a retaliatory strike by al Qaeda is warily anticipated.

The prospects of an attack against the US or its allies in the Afghan war have not yet prompted the French authorities to change the level of the country’s terrorist threat scale. Since the 2005 London bombings the threat has been set at “high”, the second highest of France’s four-level system.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said on Monday: “The terrorist threat level was high before the death of bin Laden. It remains high after his death.”

Date created : 2011-05-03

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