France in Mali: What Risk for the 'New' Hollande?

As French troops continue to engage Islamist rebels in Mali, questions are being raised over how long they will stay, and the real commitment of the president to ending France's long history of interventionism on the continent.

As Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande edged out incumbent Sarkozy at elections last May, all eyes focused on the new leader's approach to the economy. Foreign policy received less attention, with Hollande's stance on relations with former colonies in Africa largely overlooked. Yet with France's intervention in Mali, Hollande's position on Francophone Africa is coming under close scrutiny, with key questions concerning the approach he will take as the conflict unfolds, and what this will mean for his pledge to break with his country's history of controversial interventions in its former colonies.

Hollande's New Africa Policy

Indeed, as one of the few key foreign policy pledges to have been included in the president's sixty-point manifesto (point fifty-eight) , this promise highlights a desire - echoing that expressed by his predecessor - to break with the historic project of 'Francafrique' and to scale back France's long-standing military presence on the continent (France having launched more than fifty operations in its former African colonies since 1960). Yet while Sarkozy is widely perceived to have failed in this regard, this pledge has remained a key part of the president's rhetoric to date.

In an address to the National Assembly of Senegal in Dakar in October, for example, Hollande promised to act in line with 'a crystal clear definition of France's military presence in Africa', which he declared 'could continue only in a legal, transparent framework'. He used the same occasion to restate a belief that, in the long run, France did 'not need forces stationed in Africa'.

And beyond rhetoric, throughout his term so far, this pledge appears to have influenced policy. Hollande has not reversed his predecessor's reduction of forward troops in Africa, which continue to be stationed at just two bases. At the same time, his response to recent crises has been unwavering.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), for example, Hollande unceremoniously refused the appeal for support of President Bozizé as a coalition of rebels known as Seleka advanced on Bangui in December. This was in marked contrast to then-President Chirac's response, in 2006, to another rebel threat to the embattled Bozizé, which saw France provide logistics and intelligence support and deploy Mirage jets to attack rebel positions in the north. In signalling his departure from engaging in the internal affairs of the former colony, Hollande was unequivocal: 'Those days are over', he declared, to drive the point home.

In Mali, similarly, Hollande's early response to the crisis appeared to further support such a break. Whilst proactive in asserting the need for international action, the president insisted on a supporting role for his country in the resulting planned engagement, limited to the provision of assistance, both financial and logistical, to a 3,300-strong coalition of ECOWAS troops authorised by the UN under the banner of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).

As such, France has consistently ruled out any suggestion that it participate in frontline operations. Yet on 11 January, as an Islamist alliance combining Al-Qa'ida's North African branch AQIM, Mali's home-grown Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter-group MUJAO seized the frontline town of Konna, Hollande - undaunted by the lack of a democratic mandate on the part of interim President Traore - announced that France would respond to the Malian leader's appeal for support, initiating a ferocious campaign of air strikes, bolstered by a ground offensive five days later.

A Reluctant U-Turn?

So what explains this about-turn in Hollande's stance on Mali and how does this sudden, wholehearted and effectively singlehanded engagement speak to the president's broader position on French-speaking Africa?

Supporters of the operation, codenamed Serval, insist that France was left with no option, given the speed of the rebel advance and the dire consequences for Mali, the Sahel, and the whole of neighbouring Europe were the rebels to seize the capital. At the same time, it is argued, the country's military means and knowledge of the region - the lasting result of its former colonial presence - imparted upon France a responsibility to intervene in the event of emergency.

Yet claims that this equates to neo-colonial interference are widely dismissed. Indeed, having been requested by the Malian government, endorsed by all relevant international bodies, and granted widespread international approval - including from Russia and China - the legality of the intervention is beyond dispute.

At the same time, proponents emphasise the short-term, stop-gap nature of the operation: designed as a temporary intervention to hold off insurgents pending the arrival of AFISMA, Hollande, his supporters point out, has made clear that France has 'no intention to stay'.

The Murky Future Ahead

Yet the extent to which such statements will reassure those who fear a more protracted French engagement is open to debate. Indeed, the future course of the intervention - and France's role within it - is far from clear.

First, while the French operation has hastened plans for the deployment of ECOWAS troops, originally anticipated to be on the ground no sooner than September, it may yet be some time before the full force arrives, and longer before it is operational. As such, predictions abound that French forces could fight on alone for months, requiring unforeseen extensions to their mandate as the conflict develops.

This reflects a second concern: that of the extent of the challenge now faced by the French. Regional experts observe that the rebels on the ground are likely more numerous - and better organised - than Western governments have anticipated. Reports of unexpectedly fierce resistance from well-armed and organised groups in the West have added credence to such assessments, as has the rebels' success in gaining - albeit temporarily - the town of Diabaly, despite intensive aerial bombardment.

At the same time, the assault on the In Amenas gasfield in southeastern Algeria - an apparent act of reprisal - provides chilling evidence of the international reach of the Islamists. Add to all this the widespread concern about the chaotic state of the Malian army, the small size and questionable capacity of the ECOWAS contingent, and the bulk of the troops' lack of operational experience in desert terrain, and the expectation that France will be able to cleanly pull out as regional forces are rapidly stood up appears increasingly unrealistic.

Instead, it seems likely that France will be forced to carry the burden of the battle for some time to come. The ill-defined nature of the campaign, the absence of clarity regarding its objectives and the lack of a clear exit strategy have only served to reinforce such predictions.

As such, public concerns are mounting. In particular, Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian's announcement of an increase in force strength to 2,500 has already raised doubts about the president's commitment to extract troops within weeks, and as such concerns build, the president is unlikely to be left unscathed.

Indeed, beyond the outcome of the conflict against the insurgents, the risks of further reprisals against French citizens, and the loss of military personnel in combat, the course of the intervention is likely to play a key role in shaping perceptions of Hollande himself. On the positive side, this could well serve to recast the president as a bolder, more decisive leader than previously thought. At the same time, however, the intervention risks damaging perceptions as to Hollande's sincerity in his promises on Africa.

This is perhaps undeserved: unlike Sarkozy, whose perceived commitment to similar pledges in the eyes of the French public was permanently tarnished by repeated military forays on the continent, Hollande has so far taken care to adhere to his pledge. Yet the potential protraction of the operation in Mali into a long, costly and unpopular war could end up hurting Hollande in the exact same way, fuelling perceptions of just another leader unable - or unwilling - to let go of the past.


Cathy Haenlein

Director, Organised Crime and Policing

Organised Crime and Policing

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