Not long before the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy lost the French presidency to his socialist opponent Francois Hollande, Sarkozy’s foreign minister Alain Juppé made the following statement at the Arab World Institute: “For too long we thought that the authoritarian regimes were the only bastions against extremism in the Arab world. Too long, we have brandished the Islamist threat as a pretext for justifying to an extent turning a blind eye on governments which were flouting freedom and curbing their country’s development.”
If this was meant to send a message to France’s next government, it did the trick. Since Hollande took office, several Arab Spring uprisings or long-standing conflicts have taken turns for the worse, and Hollande, defying expectations of being weaker and less assertive than his predecessor, has taken hard and sometimes controversial stances on these Middle Eastern revolutions. France was the first European power to send aid to combat Muammar al-Gaddafi in the 2011 uprising in Libya. And the first to recognize Palestine’s bid for UN observer status, after more than a week of constant shelling by the US-backed Israeli Defense Force. And the first to support the Free Syrian Army, the loose confederation of rebel groups that still fights to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Now there are French bullets flying. This past week, France became the first to intervene militarily in northern Mali, where an Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda has imposed Sharia law for the past nine months. Trouble started in Mali last March, when the people, fed up with the government’s inability to quell a rebellion by the nomadic Tuaregs, overthrew their once-promising democracy. Seeing the country’s vulnerability and instability, and having helped themselves to weapons from Moamar Khadafy’s arsenals after Libya’s violent revolution, the Islamist group – much more formidable than the Tuaregs – swept into Mali and basically conquered the north.
But when they mounted another attack recently, France was the first to put its foot down. The French government deployed ground and aerial troops to drive Islamist forces out of the Malian village Konna and protect the bigger town of Mopti from the rebel advance. Hollande’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that the attack had prevented “appalling consequences,” for if the Islamist rebels had gone unstopped, they would have reached the capital city of Bamako in a matter of weeks.
But the Islamist terrorist groups of North Africa retaliated swiftly, and now act like the ball is in their court. They launched a counterattack within hours that captured the Malian towns of Alatona and Diabaly; they threatened to kill French hostages held all around the Arab world; they repelled a French attempt to rescue one of these hostages in Somalia, killing French troops and potentially the hostage in question; and they promised that further intervention would result in direct attacks on European soil. Insurgent leader Oumar Ould Hamaha vowed that France had “opened the gates of hell for all the French” and had “fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia. And that is only the beginning.”
This, I’d say, is some classic Arab boasting. A scary claim, yes, because the entire Western world has been doing everything we can to prevent another Iraq or Afghanistan, especially when the potential for democracy and Islamo-Christian society is bigger than it’s ever been. But it’s this fear – which has dictated French foreign policy during the Arab Spring – that will keep Mali from becoming another bloody quagmire. Unlike Bush’s wars, where he stormed both countries as a slash-and-burning crusader, Hollande has intervened only as a defender, and only when absolutely necessary. Many Afghanis and most Iraqis were confused as to why American troops came from so far away, and for what. In Mali, it’s very clear. France wishes to re-stabilize Mali’s government, protect its people, and prevent the obviously dangerous Islamists from gaining a firm foothold in Mali that would pose a serious threat to Africans and Europeans alike.
It’s also worth noting that both Syria and Mali were French colonies. France’s support of the Syrian rebels was in some ways an apology for leaving the country factionally unstable at the time of its 1936 independence and allowing the Alawites – a rich minority group of which the Assads are members – to gain control of the country. France’s foreign policy with its former colonies has turned apologetic since some of them have turned to turmoil. Hollande’s style of intervention in Mali seems to send the same message: we’re sorry for mistakes we made during the colonial period and the scars we left on your country, and we will provide all the help you need to preserve and dignify your sovereign statehood. This is a much more civil approach than the war-hawkish neo-colonialism that drove the American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So to Oumar Ould Hamaha, I say this. Yes, things could get worse before they get better. But France is not fighting a war for control, or for oil, or for old grudges, or for corporate interests, or for weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist. Hollande is being diplomatic, not hostile. His attack garnered international praise and prompted first Britain, now the US, to pledge support in the form of equipment and transportation for French troops. Between France and Al Qaeda, only the latter is out to make new enemies, and for that reason alone, I’d say that le boule est dans le court français.
During the last French presidential campaign, Hollande was mockingly nicknamed “Flanby” – a brand of French pudding – for being a soft politician. This comic (adapted from the cover of a Tintin book) shows Flanby defying (or perhaps meeting) expectations by driving right into the desert. Credit: CanalBlog.com