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French President Emmanuel Macron and Mohammed Idriss Deby (centre, left) arrive for the state funeral for Chadian president Idriss Deby in N'Djamena, on April 23, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The leaders of France and several African nations gathered Friday in Chad for the funeral of President Idriss Deby, whose sudden death this week ended a three-decade grip on power and triggered a battle for control of the country.

The heads of state appeared to signal support for Deby’s son, who rose to power after the Chadian military said his father died on the battlefield while defending the country from rebels aiming to take control.

Prominently featured was French President Emmanuel Macron, who pledged in a speech to help Chad move forward and sat next to Deby’s successor, Gen. Mohammed Idriss Deby Itno, also known as Mahamat Kaka, despite criticism that the 37-year-old had circumvented the constitution to extend the dynasty.

Macron’s presence - amid the backdrop of 5,100 French soldiers in the region - registered as the latest chapter in a long history of French influence across Central and West Africa, where movements to reduce ties to the former colonial power are gaining steam.

Malian protesters condemned their president’s relationship with France last year before soldiers toppled the regime. Senegalese demonstrators torched a number of French businesses in March, demanding the government focus on local dreams. Some Chadians said they hoped to see their nation rebuild in a way that gave more sway to the people.

“Chad must take its destiny and sovereignty into its own hands,” said Hassan Issa Abba, a 30-year-old television journalist in the capital, N’Djamena. “French influence must leave.”

Region’s toughest security force

The country of 16 million - a key Western ally in the fight against violent extremism - is caught between uprisings and insurgencies from practically every direction, and Deby had garnered favour abroad with his military might.

The former army general had commanded what is considered the region’s toughest security force, backed by French and American support, in the fight against Islamist militants destabilising swaths of neighbouring Nigeria, Mali and Niger.

Chadian soldiers deployed across the region are seen as crucial guards against fighters linked to Daesh and Al Qaida, who have killed thousands and displaced millions in their quest to dominate stretches of territory below the Sahara desert.

Deby had a habit of showing up on the front lines. He received international praise for leading efforts to beat back Boko Haram and its offshoots along Chad’s western border.

N’Djamena has been home to France’s counterterrorism base in the region for the past seven years, and French officials have frequently lauded the Chadian military for its role in the fight.

Now, Chadian troops in Mali and Burkina Faso could be ordered back home, said a French official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military matters publicly, to protect the capital and the country’s new leader.

French troops defended Deby from ouster attempts in the past, lending manpower in strikes against earlier uprisings.

Other members of the ruler’s family had been fed up with his long rule and authoritarian bent - a nephew had led one previous rebellion against him - and critics from his own ethnic group called for a fresh start after his death.

The military swiftly named Kaka as Chad’s interim leader Tuesday after Deby was announced dead in the hours following his reelection for a sixth term. The transition council pledged to hold an election within 18 months, though critics have voiced doubts that Deby’s son will surrender his position.

Gen. Azem Bermandoa, an army spokesman, said in a statement that Deby “took his last breath defending the territorial integrity on the battlefield” while visiting Chadian troops on the front lines.

Rebels based near the country’s northern border with Libya had assaulted army outposts and were driving towards the capital. It’s still unclear how exactly Deby died, and on Friday his allies were continuing to investigate the circumstances of his demise.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who also attended the funeral, backed Chad’s transitional council in a television interview, saying, “There are exceptional circumstances.”

The rebels - the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT - seemed to suspend attacks ahead of Deby’s funeral but warned global leaders to stay away from N’Djamena, citing security concerns.

On Friday, Macron urged calm as Chad entered a fragile period of reset.

“The transition that will take place in Chad must be a moment of unity, for the Chadian people and for the stability of the region,” Macron tweeted, adding that Chad can count on “France’s unwavering friendship.”

By attending the ceremony, Macron sent the message that Chad’s transitional military council is legitimate, said Roland Marchal, a researcher at Sciences Po Paris.

France turns blind eye

“France is a prisoner of its relations with Chad, more than Chad is a prisoner of its relations with France,” he said, referring to Chad’s military cooperation with France in the region.

Paris has largely turned a blind eye to the Chadian leadership’s history of silencing dissent, among other human rights abuses, Marchal said.

Kaka’s ascension violated democratic norms, he added. The speaker of the National Assembly, Haroun Kabadi, had been next in line, according to the Chadian constitution.

A group of trade unions - along with opposition leaders - has rejected the formation of the transitional military council, according to the BBC, asking workers to stay home until a new leader is constitutionally appointed.

Flix Romadoumngar Nialb, an opposition leader who won 1.9 per cent of the vote earlier this month, was among the Chadian politicians calling for the temporary leadership to recognise the constitution and quickly plan a new election.

France’s security strategy

“We should set up a dialogue panel so that everyone participates,” he said, “and so that we can have lasting peace.”

Deby’s regime was central to France’s security strategy in the region, said Nathaniel Powell, an associate researcher at the UK’s Lancaster University focused on the relationship.

The European power, which colonised much of West and Central Africa, has deep business ties in the region - and wants to keep the threat of terrorism away from Paris.

“The French have made very clear statements that they would much prefer an unconstitutional stability,” Powell said, rather “than a potentially messy transition.”