France's Mali intervention a risk for 'new' Hollande

President Francois Hollande Hollande had been criticised for being too soft

For President Francois Hollande - and indeed for the whole of France - it is a different world this week after the decision to go to war in Africa.

The president has become a new kind of leader.

The abiding criticism of Mr Hollande has been that he is soft and overly consensual.

But the rapidity of the move against the jihadists in Mali - and the green light to the failed rescue mission in Somalia - have revealed a man capable of bold and dangerous decisions.

Not for the first time, foreign intervention has helped re-forge the image of a president who was floundering in the polls.

Potential fallout

And for France, it is a new world because the country is now engaged - effectively single-handedly - in a foreign conflict against the Islamists.

The fallout from this is potentially enormous - from the risks of military mission creep, to the strategic repercussions on France's relations in Africa, to the very real threat of terrorist reprisals on hostages and in France.

French hostages still held in Africa

  • Pierre Legrand, 26, Daniel Larribe, 59, Thierry Dole, 29, and Marc Feret, 43, were kidnapped in northern Niger in 2010 by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
  • Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, were kidnapped in northern Mali in November 2011 by AQIM
  • Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, 61, was kidnapped in western Mali in November 2012 by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao)
  • Francis Collomp, 63, was kidnapped in Nigeria by Islamist group Ansaru

France has long-standing interests in, and knowledge of, this part of the world. It was the colonial power in Mali until 1960, and there are strong links of family and trade.

France also has 3,500 troops stationed in neighbouring countries - part of the long-standing military commitment to French-speaking Africa that recent governments have actually been promising to scale back.

Today, President Hollande has the backing of nearly all the political class, because in the main people buy his argument that the situation in Mali had become critical.

The advance by the jihadist alliance, the French have been repeatedly told, threatened the survival of a friendly nation.

If the Islamists took Mopti in central Mali, then in a few days they would have taken the capital Bamako. Then there would be a terrorist state a short plane hop from Paris.

In an ideal world, the Malian army would have done its job and held off the advance. Or failing that, the UN-authorised West African coalition force would have been ready to react.

But neither of these conditions held. So France's only option was to act.

Questions asked

For a time, probably some days or weeks, there will be an automatic tendency to rally behind the flag and praise the president's new-found elan.

A French Rafale jetfighter preparing to leave for Mali French Rafale jets bombed targets in Mali for the first time on Friday

But it is noticeable that already there are questions being asked about the purposes of Operation Serval, how its success will be judged, and how it will be brought to a close.

From an initial task of turning back the advancing columns of jihadist trucks and 4x4s, the French have now turned their attention hundreds of kilometres to the north where they are bombarding training camps and ammunition depots.

The clear aim is to weaken the Islamists' infrastructure to the point where they crumble in the face of a new advance from the south.

But who is to lead this advance? The Malian army needs foreign help just to hold the line. The West African support force is supposed to be on its way, but will it be up to a major offensive?

Or will French ground forces eventually have to be deployed to get the job done?

Media reaction

  • "Today the French troops will perhaps be well received by a population which is exhausted and broadly opposed to the Islamists. But the Malians will not put up with the presence of troops from the former colonial power for long, and rightly so." Francois Sergent in France's Liberation
  • "Francois Hollande had no choice. By dint of repeating that it is no longer 'Africa's gendarme', France had left states which were unable to defend themselves to their own devices." Raymond Couraud in French daily L'Alsace
  • "Many indicators are on 'red' and point to a difficult fight, which will have to involve the whole international community and must not be limited to the din of arms but must include development, without ever losing sight of the most important aim: the Malian people being the masters of their own destiny." Jean-Paul Pierot in French daily l'Humanite

Analysts say the fighting season will end in a couple of months, because after that the heat and the rains make combat impossible. So is the plan to have done with the jihadists by March?

And what then? Mali is already a dysfunctional state. Since the army putsch a year ago, its politics are a mess.

New danger

Will French forces one day come to be seen as propping up an unpopular regime, one that uses the constant bogey of Islamic extremism to justify its grip on power?

None of this need happen of course. If luck is behind the French, then the jihadist alliance may prove a paper tiger.

Its fighters may vanish back into the sands, and leave the towns back in government control.

But no-one should be under the illusion that it will necessarily turn out that way.

The French are glad to see their president has backbone. They believe what he did was right.

But it's a new world. And it's full of danger.

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