Are the French losing Muslim support in CAR?
On patrol with the French through Bangui, the contrast between Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods is obvious. The Christian areas are bustling, whereas many Muslim streets are almost deserted and shops are boarded up. There's also a big difference in how the French are received. Many Christians stop to wave at the passing soldiers. The graffiti on one wall reads "Merci a la France" ('thank you to France'). In a market place, a man plays the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, on an outdoor music system, and gives a salute as the French armoured vehicles rumble by. But the graffiti in the Muslim areas reads rather differently; "Non a La France, Non, Non" ('no to France, no, no'). There are fewer smiles, more sullen faces.
So what's going on here? Have the French lost Muslim hearts and minds in the Central African Republic? The PK12 neighbourhood on the edge of Bangui has borne the brunt of fighting in recent days, and the Muslims have come off worst. Many are now camped by the side of the road, waiting for Chadian soldiers to escort them to the north of the country. Their suspicion of the French is obvious.
"They disarm us, but not the anti-balaka [the Christian militia]....and then they just leave us here defenceless", says one man. "We don't want the French, we only want Burundian and Rwandan peacekeepers". In Bangui's Central Mosque, the Imams make the same argument, and accuse the French of "passive complicity" in attacks on Muslims by pursuing a one-sided disarmament policy that has left their community defenceless.
It's an accusation that the French vigorously deny. "If we see someone with a weapon we take it from them, whatever group they belong to", says a French officer. And our Al Jazeera team has seen French soldiers take machetes from Christian youths in PK12, threatening to use force in the process.
The problem for the French is that they have inserted themselves into the middle of what is effectively a sectarian civil war. In that role, they are bound to be resented by one side or other, and most likely by that side which is losing. At the moment, at least in Bangui, it's the Muslims who are being forced from their homes and Muslim Seleka fighters are looking to escape from the city.
But the French could take measures to win back the confidence of Muslims. In PK12, my impression has been that Rwandan peacekeepers have been more proactive than the French in trying to deter the looting of abandoned Muslim properties, if only by running towards crowds and firing their guns in the air. The French have also been reluctant to move into the hills surrounding Bangui which anti-balaka fighters have used to launch their attacks. "We don't have the logistical support to get off the roads", one French officer told me.
That may be true, but the French run the risk that their intervention, no matter how well-intentioned to begin with, is seen as one-sided in favour of the Christian majority. And in the violent and unpredictable Central African Republic, the line between perception and reality is not always obvious.