Is France trying to get out of Lebanon?

French troops, serving under the U.N. flag in southern Lebanon, received a blow today as five of their soldiers were wounded when a roadside explosive device blew up their vehicle near the southern town of Tyre. 

It was the third time this year that forces belonging to the U.N. Interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which aims to keep the peace between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah in south Lebanon, had been the target of an attack. UNIFIL commander Maj. General Alberto Asarta Cuevas said the soldiers were "traveling on a road at the southern outskirts of the city of Tyre." After the attack, he continued, [t]hey were treated at the location and were later evacuated for further medical treatment."

Hours after the explosion, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe condemned the "cowardly attack" by unknown assailants and vowed to stay the course in Lebanon. 

"France is determined to continue her engagement in UNIFIL and will not be intimidated by such despicable acts," Juppe said in a statement.

But how committed is France to maintaining a dominant role in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon?

In September, a top French diplomat, Nicolas De Riviere, traveled to New York to inform U.N. peacekeeping officials that his government was considering ordering a dramatic drawdown in its presence in Lebanon by the end of the year, according to U.N. officials and diplomats familiar with the confidential discussion.

French officials in New York later assured the U.N. peacekeeping department that they would not order an abrupt withdrawal of its forces, a decision that would have left the remaining members of the mission exposed to fresh challenges to their authority. They would wait for the U.N. secretary general to carry out a Security Council request to complete a "strategic review" of the U.N. mission's current military needs. But they have made it clear to U.N. planners that they are eager to see an orderly transition to a smaller and cheaper U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

The French government, like other European governments, is in the midst of a major financial crisis, and it is eager to find ways to reduce its financial commitment to costly U.N. missions. As Turtle Bay previously reported, France and Britain have been pressing the United States to scale back U.N. peacekeeping missions from Liberia to Haiti.

While most Western governments have been reducing their contributions of military personnel to U.N. peacekeeping missions since the late 1990s, Italy, France and Germany agreed to provide the backbone for a reinforced U.N. peacekeeping mission to implement a cease-fire deal between Israel and Lebanon following Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah.

France is currently the U.N.'s 19th largest contributor of peacekeepers, deploying more than 1,400 troops in seven missions (1,300 are in Lebanon). In Ivory Coast, the French military intervened on behalf of the United Nations to overthrow former leader Laurent Gbagbo -- who is now facing a trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court -- to make way for the country's elected leader, Alassane Ouattara.

Since 1997, France has held a monopoly on the U.N.'s top peacekeeping post, in part because of its status as a major power and its willingness to send its forces into U.N. peacekeeping missions. (China is the only permanent member of the Security Council that has more peacekeepers serving in U.N. missions than France.)

A retreat from Lebanon could prove politically costly for France, potentially diminishing its influence over its former protectorate and undercutting its historical claim to run the U.N. peacekeeping department.

Herve Ladsous, a former French diplomat who served as Juppe's advisor, was recently appointed chief of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping, the third French national in a row to hold that post.

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