Baptism by Fire of Francois Hollande

By Anton Ramov

The year of 2013 has started with an acute escalation of the situation in Mali. After a military coup in March 2012 the North of the country was captured by Toureg-separatists from the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (NLMA). Having used disorganization and weakness of governmental troops, the rebels proclaimed an independent state of Azawad along the territory, comparable in sizes with France. Already in summer 2012 contradictions between moderate separatists and radical Islamists among rebelled Toureg escalated. As a result the power was transferred to the Islamists from the groupings of  Ansar al-Din (“Faith defenders”) and Al-Qaeda of Islamic Magrheb.


They introduced within a controlled territory in north Mali the law of Shariah, banned selling of cigarettes and alcohol, practiced cutting off limbs, and also started to destroy monuments of medieval architecture, having opened the tomb in the city of Tombuktu in a medieval Muslim spiritual center. Their aim, in comparison with the Toureg-separatists from NLMA was not independence but a broad autonomy within the frames of Mali and dissemination of radical Islamic norms along the total territory of the country. January 10th, 2013 Islamists invaded the city of Kona, which opens a direct way to attack the capital of the country Bamako city. Appeared a real threat of takeover by the rebels of the capital of Mali and, as a result, complete collapse of the state and turning of this former French colony into “black Afghanistan”. Except for that it’s worth to note the existence in the north of the country of big uranium fields, which enhances strategic significance of the region for France.


The President of France Francois Hollande, having made a decision on the participation in a military mission named “Serval” in Mali, declared that French troops shall remain within the lands of the African state “as much as it is needed”. Already January 11th the city of Kona, captured on the eve by the rebels, again came under the control of Mali state. January 18th – 19th a report about liberation of the Douentza city appeared. This has happened exclusively thanks to French aviation and tanks. According to the Command, French troops confronted not just bullies with machine-guns in pick-ups, but a well-trained and prepared fighters. At the moment further displacement if Islamists to the north of the country goes on. Considering the peculiarities of the region and the freedom of Toureg’s movement between the states of the region (Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso), the mission can prolong. One shouldn’t expect  that everything shall end fast and painlessly – as Toureg’s uprisings primarily against French colonizers, and then after the independent state of Mali wouldn’t stop from the beginning of XX century.


France is planning to increase a military contingency up to 2.5 thousand people (now there are about 1400) and to join about 3300 fighters from the states of the African Union (Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, etc). It has the support of the member-states of the UN Security Council. Russia at the official level supports the solution of African issues with the forces of Africans themselves (primarily the introduction of the African Union troops in Mali was planned for autumn of 2013). At the same time, a special envoy of the Russian Federation President on the cooperation with African states Mikhail Margelov noted danger of “dissemination of Al-Qaeda controlled criminal nidus”. Russia suggested to present military-transporting resources for French troops, which are the most spacious in the world aircrafts AN-124 “Ruslan”. Thus, this intervention is unique among all military interventions of late periods: it has the support of the whole international community. The nursery of radical Islamism in north of Africa is bad for everybody.


However, unfortunately for the Elysee Palace, this support turns out to be simply verbal and mostly symbolic. Europe and the USA assist France with transport and logistics, but are absolutely against of their soldiers participation directly in combat actions. Mali’s army is weak and suffers from multiple desertion, and the forces of the African Union member-states are also significantly lower in trainings and equipment than Europeans. To a greater extent France has to count only on itself, and only its army is a real power in the region.


So why has Paris still decided to start this military mission? This question lies not in economy (although France, naturally, has its interests in this region rich for uranium and gold), but in political area. France as the UN Security Council member and as a state, positioning itself as a great one, can’t withdraw and not participate in the fate of its colonies, which gained independence only a bit more than half of century ago. It is not going to leave Africa, withdraw its military bases and limit itself only with the boundaries of Europe. Among fresh examples of such policy we should mention also forwarding of additional military contingency to Central African Republic, and the attempt of liberation of French hostage in Somali in the beginning of January this year. The country is ready to defend its interests also in Mali neighbor-states: French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declares, that in near future he is going to forward the special forces to reinforce the uranium development fields in Niger, in the area of Arlit city (strategically important for nuclear industry fields are developed by French company Areva).


In France they perfectly understand that the situation in Mali is directly related with the events in Libya, in military intervention into which French troops also took part. Gaddafi’s regime collapse incited the upraising of the Toureg in north Mali, when thousand of religious extremists knowing how to hold a gun, having got rid of severe control of Libyan colonel, gained access to the richest military arsenals, which they naturally used immediately. Except for that, a possible disintegration of Mali for several states or turning this country into a theocratic Islamic state could have resulted into destabilization and radicalization of its northern neighbor Algeria, with which France is connected not only with economic (this is the third gas supplier to Europe after Norway and Russia), but also with historic relations. We should only remember that exactly the Arab crisis was one of the reasons for the Fourth Republic collapse in 1958. The vector of French foreign policy, the same as before ending in late 1990-s of the civil war in Algeria, turns out to be directed at south.


Inside the country we may observe almost unanimous support of the military mission. Francois Hollande’s rating has gone up after the intervention. At the same time the right-wing forces opposing the President-socialists blame him that he didn’t manage to create a full-value international coalition and that France, in essence, is fighting alone. In case of the campaign in Mali lingers and the rebels, having left big cities, shall switch to partisan tactic of military actions, we should expect reduction of popularity of the current course of the French President.


Also there is a threat of a terrorist danger, directed against Frenchmen. Islamists expressed their readiness to get down to the practice of terror, so that no citizen of the Fifth republic could feel safe nowhere in the world. Hostage capture in Algerian gas field In-Amenas, which was forcedly suppressed by Algerian militarymen, has already resulted into 48 victims, among which there are also the citizens of France, Great Britain and Japan. We shouldn’t forget that 7 more French hostages are still kept by the Al-Qaeda grouping of Islamic Maghreb in different countries of African region Sahel. Thus the latest tragic events in Algeria naturally are not the last attempt of radical Islamists to defend their values by all means. 


Yet locals suffer most of all. Humanitarian situation in the north of Mali is characterized as a disastrous, the number of refugees grows. As one famous African proverb says, when two elephants are fighting, grass suffers the most.


Anton Ramov – France-Russia analytical center Observo


Translated by EuroDialogueXXI from politcom.ru