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Old Wine in New Bottles? Justifying France’s Military Intervention in Mali

The discourse surrounding France's interventions in Africa has changed, but have the underlying motivations?
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French president François Hollande speaking at a European Union summit. Photograph by European Union 2013/European Parliament.

France is at it again. Less than two years after Franco-British-led air strikes helped topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in March 2011, and French troops made the arrest of the former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo possible in April 2011, the French army is once again intervening in Africa; this time, according to the official discourse, to fight terrorist and criminal groups in Mali who pose a menace to the integrity of a democratic country, the lives of about 5,000 French expatriates, and the security of both Africa and Europe.

France has a long history of military interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, which traditionally have served the safeguarding or installation of governments friendly to France, the protection of French economic interests, or boosted France’s role in the world. In the period from 1960 to 2005, there have reportedly been 46 French military operations in Francophone Africa.

France, thanks heavily to Africa, has been able to maintain its status as an important player on the international scene. And although the old neo-colonial Françafrique system may be dead or dying, French foreign policy remains very much alive when it comes to Africa.

For the good of the world?

While there are strong elements of continuity regarding French military interventions in Africa, the justifications for entering into combat in the region have radically changed.

Since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the questionable role France played throughout the crisis, France’s perception of itself as the natural gendarme d’Afrique has become increasingly unpopular, and the official discourse has been strenuously trying to avoid any accusations that depict France as a neo-colonial power.

Being aware of the haunting errors of the past, French president François Hollande has made it clear that France has no other interests in Mali than rescuing a friendly state and no other objective than fighting terrorism, though the vicinity of Niger, the producer of a significant portion of the uranium used in France’s power plants, might still raise some eyebrows. Accordingly, France’s official communication surrounding the military intervention in Mali has been following an extremely outward-oriented strategy aimed towards portraying France as a faithful servant to the international community.

This ‘good global citizen’ dimension is underlined with references to France’s ongoing and fierce commitment to the fight against terrorism since the tragic attacks of 9/11. The success of this strategy is reflected in the unconditional, though largely symbolic, support France has received from African regional organisations, the UN, the European Union, and the UK and the US.

Indeed, the intervention is described as legitimate in the strictest sense of international law. Along with UN Security Council resolutions 2056, 2071, and 2085, it is particularly the request issued by Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, in which he asked France for military support, that provides the legal basis for Operation Serval.

An echoing history

Yet the veil of multinational legitimisation cannot entirely obscure the relics of the colonial past. Traditionally, France has referred to its historical responsibilities and its family-like ties with many West African countries in order to justify its military interventions. French military interventions in the region were governed by a sense of obligation, upon which France’s ‘good friends’ south of the Sahara could count on.

At present, not only is Mali grateful to France, a member of the UN Security Council with the military potential to accomplish a task the Malian army has been unable to handle alone, but it has specifically welcomed the solidarity of its former colonial power. “France was and remains our colonial power”, a satisfied citizen is quoted as saying on the website of the Malian government.

Besides being an expression of goodwill and fierce commitment on the part of the French political establishment, the discourse accompanying the French intervention in Mali is also indicative of a specific worldview through which French elites perceive their country’s international role. While stressing that the era when shadowy networks, clientelism, and corruption governed Franco-African relations has come to an end, recent comments made by French politicians attest that France’s self-perception remains intrinsically tied to the African continent. Debates in the French parliament leave no doubt that France defines its present role in the world with significant reference to its former colonial sphere of influence.

During a recent debate in the French Parliament, for example, Green Party MP Christophe Cavard evoked France’s historic responsibility not only vis-à-vis Mali but the entire West African region. Most discussions of interventions these days relate France’s and Europe’s future to that of the African continent. In light of this interdependence, leaving Africa to its own fate is out of the question. By exporting its values and institutions, France sees the means of attaining durable peace and sustainable development in Africa.

One example of this approach is the importance France attributes to the Francophonie, an international organisation with its headquarters in Paris and the mission of promoting French language and values. The organisation promotes universal education across the continent and, by doing so, spreads values such as the belief in human rights and Western-style electoral democracy. A centrist parliamentarian, Philippe Folliot, added, not entirely selflessly, that the organisation’s future depends upon its continued success in France’s African pré carré, or backyard.

Par excellence?

The idea of France as a benevolent power continues to resonate. It can take the form of barely flattering speeches, such as those former French president Nicolas Sarkozy used to make during his various visits to the African continent and in which he enumerated the benefits of colonialism and absolved France from its past sins, or can simply be seen in the form of a discourse portraying France as Africa’s most important friend and partner.

The latter of these two possibilities has made an appearance during the Malian crisis. It has allowed the French president to be celebrated by cheering masses in Bamako and Timbuktu – visits which François Hollande described as the most important moments in his political career – and enabled France to reaffirm its role in the world. It is no surprise that French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, in his address to the French National Assembly, stressed the gratefulness of the Malian people and the intimate relationship that unites the two countries.

However, not everyone welcomes France’s renewed engagement on the African continent. The Algerian newspaper Liberté, for instance, commented on France’s intervention in Mali with the following statement: “The French military intervention has been code-named Serval. For those who don’t know, the serval is an African cat of prey that has the peculiar trait of urinating thirty times an hour to mark its territory. Spot on!” The journalist goes on to argue that France could not resist the temptation of returning to its old pré carré in order to show the world that it knows the interests of the Malian population best.

And François Hollande has not entirely escaped old clichés when he stated, at the French naval base in Abu Dhabi, UAE, that France is there to support “les Africains”. Honi soit qui mal y pense (‘shamed be he who thinks bad of it’).

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Comments

Very interesting analytical article. I am writing MA thesis about France's interventions in former colonies and this article has been really helpful.