France in the Balkans

A Blue Helmet protects pedestrians on a bridge, Sarajevo, 1995. © V. Begon/ECPAD

In 1992, the French armed forces engaged in a theatre of operations just an hour and a half's flight away from France. The powder keg of the Balkans of 1914 reared its head and the international community decided to act. The successive operations would give rise to a ”Balkans generation”, particularly among the ranks of the French army.

Corps 1

The Serbs' refusal to recognise the independence of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina led the international community to deploy, in February 1992, the United Nations Protection Force, or UNPROFOR. Its first mission was to ensure the demilitarisation of the UN-protected zones in Croatia, then Bosnia from June onwards. The French contingent, mainly deployed to Sarajevo, held the airport, easing the blockade on the city by Serb forces. For its part, the French air force took part in Operation Deny Flight, starting in April 1993.

Faced with the humiliation of 200 Blue Helmets, 100 of them French, being taken hostage in 1995, orders were given to resist armed aggression. On 27 May, Serbian soldiers captured the Vrbanja Bridge observation post. A section of the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, supported by ERC-90s (light armoured vehicles with 90mm cannons) of the Marine Tank Infantry Regiment, attacked and recaptured it, at a cost of two dead and ten wounded. To deal with the escalating situation, a rapid reaction force was created, as part of Operation Janus. This force of 4 500 troops, including 2 000 French soldiers in the command of General Soubirou, gave a strong military response.

These events marked a turning-point in how the operations were conducted. UNPROFOR had shown its limitations: the rigidity of the UN system, the stacking up of missions with each new resolution and, above all, a poor grasp of the situation. It was engaged in a peacekeeping mission, when what needed to be done first was for peace to be restored. That year also saw the strongest engagement of French forces in UNPROFOR, with the deployment of 6 500 troops.

It was succeeded by a new force, IFOR, on 20 December 1995, following the signing of the Dayton Agreement on 21 November 1995. The goal of Operation Joint Endeavour was to ensure an end to hostilities and the effective separation of the parties involved. Of a total of 55 000 troops, France, as lead nation of a multinational division, provided 3 000. Its success led to Operation Joint Guard, and the creation of a Stabilisation Force, or SFOR, in December 1996 to consolidate its results. To begin with, 6 900 French troops operated in the southeast zone of the province around Mostar. A return to peace brought a reduction in the size of the force, leaving 1500 French troops among the 15 000 soldiers deployed in 2003.

SFOR was replaced by a European stabilisation force, EUFOR Althea, on 2 December 2004. Maintaining the same structure as SFOR, it was made up of 7 000 troops, of which France's Operation Astrée contributed 450. The improved security situation led to the French contingent being cut by two-thirds in 2007. The last detachment of the Butmir 2 military camp was disbanded on 25 May 2009.

In Serbia, the Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, launched a war of harassment in 1996 against government forces. In 1998, in view of the Serbian move to expel the ethnic Albanian population, NATO compelled the Serbs, by means of air strikes, to sign a ceasefire and evacuate Kosovo. Finding its legitimacy in UN Security Council Resolution 1244, the 50 000-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR) was deployed on 12 June 1999.

French participation took the form of Operation Trident, whose 6 000 French troops provided the bulk of Multinational Battle Group North, based in Mitrovica. Its main tasks were to work with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, participate in setting up a Kosovo security force and provide policing in the province. The latter aspect involved acquiring new skills, since law enforcement in France is the job of the police and gendarmerie. With the favourable evolution of the situation, in 2011 they were transferred to Multinational Battle Group East, based in Novo Selo, before leaving the region in late 2014.

The first large-scale overseas operations since the Gulf War, the French armed forces' engagements in the former Yugoslavia cost the lives of 114 French service personnel: 56 in UNPROFOR, 28 in Operation Salamandre, 22 in Operation Trident, three in EUFOR Althea, three in KFOR and two EU observers. They firmly established a new model, drawing a line under the Cold War and its doctrine towards the East, to develop a deployable force that could adapt to circumstances.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Petrequin - Head of Administrative Management, Human Resources Directorate, French Foreign Legion

Corps 2


Personal account

Captain Christine L.

(French army, former Yugoslavia)

”As assistant flight commander within the squadron, I had to transport equipment and senior civilian and military officials of the UNHCR. I was tasked with carrying out missions that avoided the war zones and involved landing on Mount Igman in order to avoid Sarajevo airport, at the time a prime target of Serbian forces. Those missions were particularly difficult and hazardous, and taught me to overcome my fears, to push beyond my limits. No one ever questioned my ability to accomplish these missions because I was a woman. In the armed forces, a serviceman or woman remains first and foremost a soldier.

Among the vivid memories from my time in the former Yugoslavia is how a Bosnian child's eyes lit up when I handed him a ration pack, but above all it is the sense of pride and honour at having served my country on this interposition mission under the aegis of the United Nations.”


Personal account

Major Michel F.

(French navy, Kosovo)

”In 1999, as a qualified reactor operator, I took part in Operation Trident off the coast of Kosovo, on board the nuclear attack submarine the Améthyste. Our objective was to provide intelligence to ensure the protection of the naval air-force group, by participating in the surveillance of the Yugoslav coastline. We were well prepared, and quickly took up our combat positions, arriving in the zone before the air strikes began. The mission was extended well beyond what was originally announced, so that we went non-stop for 59 days! Not hearing from our families for such a long time was tough, but we were a close-knit crew and the isolation had little impact on our morale. The solidarity and mutual assistance that are the strength of our armed forces came into their own, and the significance of our mission meant there was no time for weakness. The importance given to eating well also helped us through. Thanks to the talent of our chef, I can still remember our last meal on board, worthy of a starred restaurant!”


Personal account

Captain Christine L.

(French army, former Yugoslavia)

”As assistant flight commander within the squadron, I had to transport equipment and senior civilian and military officials of the UNHCR. I was tasked with carrying out missions that avoided the war zones and involved landing on Mount Igman in order to avoid Sarajevo airport, at the time a prime target of Serbian forces. Those missions were particularly difficult and hazardous, and taught me to overcome my fears, to push beyond my limits. No one ever questioned my ability to accomplish these missions because I was a woman. In the armed forces, a serviceman or woman remains first and foremost a soldier.

Among the vivid memories from my time in the former Yugoslavia is how a Bosnian child's eyes lit up when I handed him a ration pack, but above all it is the sense of pride and honour at having served my country on this interposition mission under the aegis of the United Nations.”


Personal account

Major Michel F.

(French navy, Kosovo)

”In 1999, as a qualified reactor operator, I took part in Operation Trident off the coast of Kosovo, on board the nuclear attack submarine the Améthyste. Our objective was to provide intelligence to ensure the protection of the naval air-force group, by participating in the surveillance of the Yugoslav coastline. We were well prepared, and quickly took up our combat positions, arriving in the zone before the air strikes began. The mission was extended well beyond what was originally announced, so that we went non-stop for 59 days! Not hearing from our families for such a long time was tough, but we were a close-knit crew and the isolation had little impact on our morale. The solidarity and mutual assistance that are the strength of our armed forces came into their own, and the significance of our mission meant there was no time for weakness. The importance given to eating well also helped us through. Thanks to the talent of our chef, I can still remember our last meal on board, worthy of a starred restaurant!”

  • Un casque bleu assure la protection des piétons sur un pont, Sarajevo, 1995. © V. Begon/ECPAD