Just as its leaders were defining a new “hands-off” strategy for Africa, France has been thrust onto the front line of one of the continent’s riskiest battlefields deep in the desert of Mali.
Report by Reuters
President Francois Hollande’s backing of air strikes to halt Islamist rebels advancing on the capital Bamako raises the threat level for eight French hostages held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30 000 French expatriates living in neighbouring, mostly Muslim states.
It could also trigger an attack on French soil. But, in what could be the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency, Hollande bet that inaction bore a greater peril of producing a jihadist state like Afghanistan under the Taliban.
“We must stop the rebels’ offensive, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands — creating a threat for Africa and even for Europe,” his foreign minister Laurent Fabius told reporters to justify backing Mali’s dilapidated national army.
For months, military planners in Paris had been working on discreet and limited support for an African-led effort due later this year to try and drive Islamists out of France’s ex-colony.
That scenario was swiftly overtaken last week as rebels captured the central town of Konna that is a gateway towards Bamako 600km further south.
With Mali’s army impotent, Hollande ordered the first military strikes of his career. Now France has deployed troops, C-160 transport aircraft, attack helicopters and has Rafale jets on standby, the question is: where does it go from here?
The intervention came weeks after Paris conspicuously failed to rescue the incumbent leader in Central African Republic, another ex-colony, leaving President Francois Bozize no alternative but to accept a power-sharing pact with insurgents threatening to take over his mineral-rich state.
The Bozize snub was a sign that Hollande’s government was banging another nail in the coffin of “Francafrique”, the shady decades-old system under which Paris propped up African leaders aligned to French business interests.
Hollande’s government stresses that by entering Mali, France is not falling back into old habits.
Its presence is legitimised by UN resolutions mandating foreign intervention to support Mali forces and approval by the same African leaders irked in 2011 when France and Britain ordered Nato air strikes in Libya to oust Muammar Gaddafi.
The US and Britain have also signalled backing, and even opposition French conservatives mostly say Hollande did the right thing.
Shocking reports of public amputations in rebel-held northern Mali as tough shariah Islamic law is imposed will persuade many French voters the intervention was just.