France Presses Ahead With International Operation in Mali

The country walks a fine line between security interests and a colonial past

19/11/2012 five questions to Katrin Sold

Category: Security, Africa, Mali, France, Near and Middle East/North Africa

Islamist rebels have brought northern Mali under their control. The country threatens to become a retreat for terrorist, and thousands of people are on the run. France has traditionally cultivated close relations to West African states and is now campaigning for an international intervention in Mali. However, French President Francois Hollande cannot afford the type of military engagement his predecessor pursued in Libya. Five questions for DGAP expert Katrin Sold.

How has the initial position for an international operation in Mali developed?

Mali has long been considered a model of democratic development in Africa. But in March 2012, a group of officers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure. The unclear situation following the coup allowed Tuareg separatists to bring large areas of Northern Mali under their control. Since then, radical Islamists, including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have taken over control of the north and pressed ahead with the establishment of a theocracy under Sharia law. The group finances its activities through kidnappings and smuggling weapons, drugs, and people in the largely lawless stretches of the Western Sahara. Their struggle is made possible by weapons procured from the former Gaddafi regime in Libya, for which many returning mercenaries in Mali served.

In September, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) applied for relief from the UN Security Council. On October 12, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2071 (brought forward by France), which authorized an international intervention that would be carried out through regional organizations in Africa within 45 days. In the interim, a diplomatic solution was to be sought under the leadership of Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore, which would call for a transitional government in Mali, the swift organization of elections, and talks with the Tuareg. Any intervention that takes place after the 45-day period would be carried out by troops from ECOWAS states.

How do France’s interests differ in Libya, Syria, and Mali?

France’s leadership role during the Libya operation mostly served to compensate for its failures during the uprisings in Egypt and above all in Tunisia. Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s effort to move ahead with the operation was an attempt to reestablish France’s self-perception as an important actor in the Mediterranean region with a special bond to North Africa. This self-image was damaged by the French government’s close ties to the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and by France’s disproportionate reaction to the demonstrations in Tunis. The French foreign minister offered the Tunisian regime police support against the demonstrations in January 2011.

Today, French opposition politicians and some intellectuals see France as having a responsibility to engage militarily in Syria following their involvement in the Libya operation. But the new government under President Francois Hollande, which is able to act independent of the misjudgments made by its predecessors, has limited French engagement for opponents of the Assad regime to humanitarian aid and symbolic gestures. France has refused to take an active role in the preparation or implementation of an international intervention.

The situation is different in Mali, where France is pushing for international action: The French government has brought forward Resolution 2071 in the UN Security Council and has announced its support for the Malian army in the areas of education and training. However, the operation itself should be conducted by ECOWAS troops. As opposed to Syria, France has concrete strategic interests in Mali. Economic aspects play a secondary role despite the fact that northern Mali is rich in resources, including petroleum fields and uranium deposits. The French firm Areva has exploited similar uranium deposits in neighboring Niger for decades.

Most important for Paris are security interests and the concern that North Africa will become an uncontrolled haven for Islamic terrorists. As a former colonial power, France sees itself as particularly at risk of terrorist attacks. Radical Islamists have held four French Areva employees in Mali for the last two years, and in light of French support for an intervention in Mali, Al Qaida has threatened further kidnappings and attacks both in France and against the 5000 French citizens in Mali.

Does the current engagement in Mali align with France’s previous Africa policy?

France is walking a fine line with its engagement in Mali. On the one side are security and economic interests, and on the other is the danger of being accused of neocolonialism. French President Hollande has consistently announced a break with the “Francafrique” relationship between France and its former colonies, as the relationship is based on corruption, patronage, and privilege.

Thus, at the Francophone Summit that took place in October in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Hollande sought to maintain a clear distance to controversial Congolese President Kabila. However, in order to solve the crisis in Mali, France has been in close contact with authoritarian heads of state in West Africa. When Hollande meets with Idriss Deby because Chad’s well-trained army could play an important role against the Malian rebels, or when he welcomes Blaise Compaore in Paris, who has been president of Burkina Faso since 1983 and is chief negotiator for ECOWAS in the Mali conflict, he subordinates the goal of creating a new foundation for French Africa policy to its interest in rapid stability in Mali.

The past and the present have closed ranks in other cases as well. A successful intervention in Mali requires the support of its neighbor Algeria, which shares a 1400-kilometer long border with Mali. Many of the Islamist rebels come from Algeria. But the deployment of French troops along its border is unthinkable for the Algerian government. This is also a reason why France has sought involvement from other states. In order to get Algeria’s approval for an intervention, Hollande has already made a concession to Algeria in the run-up to a planned visit to the country in December: He became the first French president to recognize the massacre of North African protestors during the Algerian War in 1961, a move that was long sought by Algeria but is still a delicate subject in France.

What does the Mali situation reveal about the new French president’s foreign policy?

Accusations of neocolonialism are not the only thing that limits France’s room for maneuver: domestic pressures also constrain the government’s foreign policy. Hollande’s election promise to align his political decisions more strongly with public opinion than his predecessor did plays an important role here. The public is skeptical of more combat operations abroad. In light of the speedy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that was announced during the election, the president’s credibility could suffer if there is a new military operation.

France’s difficult budget situation also reduces Hollande’s options. If the president wishes to implement the consolidation program he advocated during the election campaign, he will have little leeway for cost-intensive foreign policy decisions. And the Libya operation, in which the Franco-British leadership duo relied on US support, showed the limits of France’s military capacities. There are pragmatic reasons that compel the French government to set clear foreign policy priorities and pursue an international division of labor.

Does French foreign policy include the EU and Germany?

France will not risk unilateral action in Mali and has thus pressed for a multilateral operation that would be carried out by African troops. For the permitted support in the areas of education and training, France has pushed for European task sharing. At the European Council in October, the Mali issue received a prominent place on the EU agenda for the first time. The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs, Catherine Ashton, is to submit a concept for an operation by November 19, for which the EU training missions in Somalia and Niger could be models. As with other EU partners, Germany and France have assured each other that they will work together on the Mali crisis at the EU level.

At the very least, the differences France and Germany had on the Libya issue mean that both countries will make an effort to coordinate their Mali policies. The topic was the subject of a meeting between the French and German foreign and defense ministers at the beginning of October. Although the German foreign minister was initially reserved on the Mali issue, one can expect Germany to be actively involved in any mission – the harsh criticisms it received from its western partners, and in particular from France, regarding its abstention during the Libya vote at the UN Security Council have had a strong effect.

Although it did not initially serve German interests, the French effort to integrate Germany into the European planning process has since borne fruit. Chancellor Angela Merkel has assured Germany’s participation in a European support mission in Mali “if the conditions for it exist and are clear.” This is a concession to the French government, which, in the context of the euro crisis and the make up of the Franco-German relationship, can be understood as a gesture to France.

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