The French care more about jobs than Maliby Christine Ockrent / February 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
During his first months at the Elysée, François Hollande pretended to behave like a “normal” president. Nobody quite knew what he meant, short of going to Brussels by train rather than flying the Falcon jet Nicolas Sarkozy so much enjoyed. Soon enough the French wondered whether the socialist, in such contrast to his hyper-reactive predecessor, was up to the job. True, economic and social circumstances have been dire from the start. But the new president’s way of circling around issues, his tactical skills obliterating any sense of a vision for the country, was making his staunchest supporters uneasy.
On 11th January, in a short television address, François Hollande announced that French troops had intervened in Mali to prevent Islamist militants, already in control of the north of the former French colony, from taking over the capital. This intervention was at the request of Malian president Dioncounda Traoré—but in embarking on this African adventure the French president might keep in mind other recent western interventions, such as in Libya and less recently in Afghanistan, both of which have brought with them unintended consequences. In going into Mali, what is at risk for Hollande?
Like his US counterpart, the French president is commander-in-chief. There’s nothing like a war to change a leader’s stature, particularly in a nation of Napoléon and de Gaulle worshippers, which still celebrates its national day with a military parade. Whatever the justification, from preventing the dismantling of Mali to wiping the Islamists out of their northern strongholds, the intervention has been broadly supported by political parties and public alike, including the large Malian immigrant community. Security measures have been strengthened without any overt fear of terrorist attacks.
So far, so good. The French airforce, together with troops on the ground—3,500 altogether—chased the militants from Timbuktu and the other townships where they had imposed Sharia law and destroyed centuries-old symbols of local Islam. Exalting moral values rather than concrete national interests, the president and his government argued for the necessity to fight international terrorism and to strengthen struggling African states. It has nothing to do with “Françafrique,” the post-colonial networks that have exercised their corrupt influence for decades, the Elysée promised. But the terrorist attack against In Amenas, the gas plant in eastern Algeria, and the merciless reaction of the Algerian army, demonstrated some of the current stakes in the huge Sahel, where nomadic tribes have survived for centuries through trafficking of all sorts, before the downfall of Gaddafi threw in idle mercenaries and up-to-date weaponry.
Hollande’s decision took the international community by surprise. Fellow European Union countries offered little support, demonstrating once again a disastrous lack of common foreign policy and defence concerns. Some African troops headed to join the French, primarily well-trained Chadians. Evidence of heightened American interest in the region came with an agreement in January that could pave the way for the development of a US drone base in Niger. In Paris, vice president Joe Biden profusely praised the French troops’ efficiency.
The French have said they plan to start pulling out their troops in March and Misma, a group of African troops, will take over. Yet the difficult part may just be starting. Though different from Afghanistan, this asymmetric war opposes conventional armies against guerilla fighters familiar with every dune and cave in northeast Mali. At least seven French hostages are believed to be held there. In February, jihadists attacked the northern town of Gao, proving that none of the areas they have evacuated are safe. Huge issues remain to be addressed, starting with the status of the Touareg, who for decades have yearned for autonomy and have not all turned into Islamists. The state apparatus and the political process are in total disarray.
“I have just experienced the most important day of my political life!” a beaming Hollande exclaimed in Bamako in early February amidst rejoicing crowds, a somewhat candid declaration given what is at stake. However justified, the war in Mali has killed only one French soldier so far, and TV coverage has been tightly controlled. The president’s approval ratings have increased slightly, albeit to a meagre 38 per cent. The only warfare the French are really concerned about is against unemployment. On that front there is no victory in sight.