DESPITE ALL THE TALK ABOUT AMERICAN IMPERIALISM, this sounds more like the real thing:

On the evening of March 4, 10 French paratroopers reached Birao, Central African Republic, and dropped near an airstrip captured by rebel militia. The paratroopers ambushed the rebels, killing several and reclaiming the airport for the government.

In France, neither the public nor parliament was informed of the attack for three weeks. Coordinating the mission was the “Cellule Africaine,” a three-person office nestled behind the Elysée, France’s presidential palace. This wasn’t the first time the office has been involved in the Central African Republic’s internal affairs: In 1979, France toppled the former colony’s self-proclaimed emperor and reinstalled his predecessor.

How French presidents from de Gaulle (right) to Chirac have handled the “African Cell” and France’s interests in Africa.

For the past half-century, the secretive and powerful “African Cell” has overseen France’s strategic interests in Africa, holding sway over a wide swath of former French colonies. Acting as a general command, the Cell uses France’s military as a hammer to install leaders it deems friendly to French interests. In return, these countries give French industries first crack at their oil and other natural resources. Sidestepping traditional diplomatic channels, the Cell reports only to one person: the president.

But with France’s new President Nicolas Sarkozy preparing to assume office later today, the African Cell’s days may be numbered. There are accusations the French military bears some responsibility for the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, charges the government strenuously denies. There’s fierce debate over the French military’s continuing presence in the Ivory Coast, where soldiers were dispatched in 2002 when rebels threatened to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo.

The Cell’s close ties to oil giant Elf Aquitaine, where top executives were jailed on corruption charges, were a source of embarrassment. And a former Cell chief is now facing charges related to arms trafficking to Angola.

Critics say the Cell’s support of nondemocratic African regimes, an artifact of France’s colonial past, is preventing these nations from making progress to modernity. And Africa, once evidence of imperial grandeur, is now viewed by many French as the source of a continuing flood of poor immigrants.

Perhaps Bush should win over Democrats by urging a “more European” foreign policy.

It’s a pay story at the WSJ, but the link above should work for nonsubscribers for a while.