The present crisis raises a number of crucial questions, for France, Mali, the EU and our globalised world.
“Ah la Françafrique!”, this acronym has described so well the incestuous relationship between France and its former African colonies since they achieved independence in 1960. It was a relationship mostly between corrupt dictators and the French political leaders they lavishly paid in exchange for support against opposition and for closing their eyes to the syphoning out of their impoverished countries’ wealth.
All French presidents fell into this sugar trap. Socialist president François Hollande's recent involvement in Mali apparently has all the hallmarks of this ill-fated neocolonial relationship. Like his many predecessors before him he has been engulfed in this African black hole.
But only apparently, as times have changed since 2010, when the last president Nicolas Sarkozy sent troops to Ivory Coast to back elected president Alassane Ouattara, and in 2011 when he helped Libyans overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. He acted at the request of the recognised authorities with UN approval and unanimous support from the Security Council for the Malian operation. And, for Ivory Coast and Mali, the intervention was also backed by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), whose troops have started to land in the Malian capital, Bamako.
Not known for expediting hard decisions, Hollande had wanted to concentrate on economic and social priorities like slashing France’s huge deficits, debt and unemployment, but had to decide within hours whether to intervene militarily to stop the lightning advance of Islamic terrorists linked to Al Qaeda towards Bamako – this time mainly on moral grounds – as well as to uproot an organisation which also threatened to strike against Europe.
Mali's fate and the stability of the Sahel were at stake. But not only this, as Islamic fanaticism is now a worldwide threat to our ways of life.
It is true that France could intervene faster than any other country. She has 5,000 soldiers based throughout former French Africa, from Dakar to Djibouti, leftovers from her colonial and Françafrique days to protect the 50,000 French living in the area and economic interests like uranium mines in Niger.
But the present crisis raises a number of crucial questions, for Mali, the area and our globalised world.
First, for this failed state which only bears a semblance in its name to the glorious Mali Empire of the fourteenth century. One of the poorest countries in the world whose citizens have moved en masse to look for jobs in France, Mali never has been able to develop its meagre resources and organise the living together of the black southern farmers and the northern Tuareg nomad warriors. Last March, a military coup led by a rag tag army allowed Jihadists to impose their bloody Sharia in North Mali. Experts had for some years warned that the weakness of Sahelian states had opened up a vacuum these terrorists were trying to use to build a kind of 'Sahelistan', a springboard for their religious and Mafia-like (gun-running, drug or human-trafficking, hostage-taking) activities in the whole area. Unless they were Mafiosi under the guise of religion. Gaddafi’s fall, which let loose thousands of African mercenaries and arms depot looters, gave these forces a new impetus.
Regional governments finally realised the threat they were facing and decided to act, together with France, as their military capability was, to say the least, limited. The UN, which had mapped an African-led operation for this autumn, was in no position to stop the sudden flow of pick-up trucks loaded with guns and warriors. Nor was the European Union, whose CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) lies in tatters. Hollande had to act fast, running the risk of being accused of neocolonialism by some of his conservative and far left rivals, as well as others in Europe or the Middle East. But had he not acted - with full support from West African countries - he could well have been accused of dilly-dallying in the face of terrorism.
How long will French soldiers remain in Mali? When a war starts, no one can seriously predict its duration or outcome. So far, Paris has said that its troops would help the Malian army to retake and stabilise Southern Mali, but would only provide logistical and tactical support to Bamako and its African allies to oust terrorists from the North. Then will come the next step, helping Mali to rebuild a more stable and efficient state. If this can be done.
Last week the French MEP – but a German national – Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the European Parliament addressed Catherine Ashton, the ghostly figure supposed to represent the CFSP, in his usual blunt way reflecting the reaction of French opinion, who feel let down by their allies: “I am for the intervention (in Mali). I only say that we must go a bit further. There are only French soldiers there. (Europe) does not have a civilian or military intervention force. That is where the shoe pinches (...) We tell the French: we'll send in nurses and you get yourselves killed in Mali”!
What is shocking is that this kind of behaviour does not seem shocking any more. Europe as a whole has long been subcontracting out its defence to the USA. And now that the Malian crisis threatens them with terrorism even more than Afghanistan or Iraq did, already having spread to Algeria - which, till then, had closed its eyes at Jihadists as long as they remained in Sahel - with the In Amenas bloody hostage-taking, countries which have been making savings on their defence expenditure hypocritically or sheepishly turn a blind eye to a crisis which threatens to engulf them. They are providing transport planes or a medical team, but no troops.
Even Germany – the wealthiest EU country, more selfishly preoccupied with her own economic interests – or Britain, the fourth military power in the world – soon to be overtaken by France according to the New York Times (see Steven Erlanger piece dated January 19) - have limited themselves to logistics. Like the United States, which has been training the Malian forces who defected last year.
War is evil, but sometimes an unavoidable evil to which no one can turn a blind eye without paying a price, sometimes very heavy. Is there an ideal answer to a crisis of that sort and is pacifism only a one-way street when faced with ruthless dictators or fanatics? Would it have been better to let Mali fall and create an Islamic haven in the heart of Africa or to come to the rescue of the victim people? Did Chamberlain and Daladier, when they kowtowed in front of Hitler in 1938, stop the coming of World War II? Algeria has been criticised by some for not having negotiated with terrorists, but have negotiations with Al Qaeda ever succeeded, ever saved the lives of hostages?
France has a tradition in intervening overseas - sometimes for the better, but not always - usually with the support of French public opinion. Even if the country has also slashed its military expenditure to the bone. Its armed forces only constitute 230,000 men and women and her army would not fill two big soccer stadiums (125,000 soldiers). If France still keeps a nuclear deterrent, it lacks transport capabilities and has not yet replenished its ammunition stocks depleted by recent operations in Afghanistan and Libya. In these hard times of financial crisis, some French politicians are now asking for military expenditure to be deducted from France's public deficit: as a matter of European solidarity, in lieu of a failed European defence policy.
Finally, the Arab and Muslim worlds, which are not the same as ‘Arab’, represent only a small percentage of Muslim believers. The Jihadists’ war against the legal government of Mali and their attack on an Algerian gas field – both Muslim countries – is another nail in the coffin of those who believe in the dream of an ideal Arab or Muslim unity. Shedding political correctness, one has to wonder how could Muslims hope to solve problems in a Muslim world by themselves when Islamic terrorists try to destabilise Muslim countries, not hesitating en route to kill other Muslims in the name of Islam (as they see it), from the World Trade Center to Timbuktu or Aleppo?