France on terror alert after challenging al-Qaeda on two fronts
France’s sudden military intervention in its former colony Mali to contain Islamist groups which have gained control of the desert north marks a crossroads. Until now, the Socialist president, François Hollande, who had positioned himself as an anti-warmongerer with the early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, had been planning a more subtle role in west Africa.
Paris played a key part in the recent UN resolution to restore order in Mali. But the plan had been for west African forces to lead the way, starting in September. Europeans would meanwhile train the dishevelled and contested Malian army. In the corridors of the French foreign ministry, diplomats always maintained that France would not - indeed could not - lead on the frontline with troops. Paris was keen to shake off its former colonial mantle by keeping a low-key role.
But after a surprise push by the rebels, leaving the path open to the capital, Bamako, France suddenly stepped in with fighter-jets and ground troops. Hollande carefully explained to the nation that he had a legal international mandate to act, backed by the UN and a request for help from Mali’s embattled president. The French defence minister called it “a war against terrorism”. Mali risked disintegrating into a jihadist state that would be a major international threat. It was sold as the war France could not avoid.
Yet France remains aware of the baggage it carries in Africa. Since the end of colonial rule, the Élysée has been accused of pulling strings, sweetened with briefcases of petrodollars, propping up contested leaders to suit Paris’s business interests in a shady system known as “Françafrique”.