In the early afternoon of January 12, four Rafale jets roared out of St-Dizier, 125 miles east of Paris, angling south toward the Mediterranean and their targets in West Africa: the training camps of Islamic fighters in northern Mali. Four hours later they struck.
It had already been a long day for France’s president, François Hollande. His laborious domestic struggles over tax rates and spending cuts had been replaced by the dark and dangerous glamour of special operations and airstrikes.
At 4 a.m., Hollande had been woken at his apartment in the 15th arrondissement, to be told that a French commando raid in Somalia to rescue a French agent, Denis Allex, kidnapped by the Shabab rebel group in 2009, had failed. Not only had they not recovered the hostage, but two commandos had been killed in the process. Mali was a very different situation. “It doesn’t matter if it was the right or wrong decision to intervene,” says Philippe Moreau Defarges, the director at IFRI (Institut Français des Relations Internationales). “It was the only decision.” And it is one that has forced a sharp reappraisal of France’s international position, especially in America. No more the vacillating “cheese-eating surrender monkey” of Iraq. France is now the go-to country in the evolving battle against Islamic groups in Africa, its paratroopers and pilots the advance troops in this fight. It not only smacks of Beau Geste and the Foreign Legion fending off the masked Tuaregs at Fort Zinderneuf, it is a very real and vital new role, a reassertion of French power independent of an ailing Europe and a NATO alliance weakening with every cut to defense budgets.
“De Gaulle said that he always had a ‘certain idea of France,’” says Steven Smith, the former Africa editor of Le Monde, now a visiting professor at Duke. “But over the past 10 to 15 years, the only idea of France has been uncertainty. London and Berlin were much more vibrant. Paris has been living on the Woody Allen myth of a golden age. All anyone seems to do is complain and then complain about other people complaining. Mali at the very least is a place where the French have their moorings, where they can do things better than the Americans.”
January has always been the favored month for fighting in the Sahara, before the heat slows everything down. Islamic jihadists had been moving south from their stronghold in northern Mali. Their convoys of Toyota trucks were still more than 600 miles north of Bamako, Mali’s capital and home to most of the 6,000 French citizens living in the country. But on January 10, the president of Mali pulled the rip cord. He sent a letter to Hollande asking for help. Not to the Americans, or to NATO, but to the French.
The presidency of France’s Fifth Republic was designed for one man, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, and has evolved over time to accommodate the personalities of its various holders: the quiet cunning of François Mitterrand, the expansive bluster of Jacques Chirac, the hyperactivity of Nicolas Sarkozy. During his first year in office, Hollande, a career apparatchik, had not yet defined his presidency. His plans to cure the French economy with higher taxes had earned him the contempt of the business class. Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of LVMH and the richest man in both France and Europe, disclosed that he was seeking Belgian citizenship in order to escape the proposed new tax regime. The actor Gérard Depardieu protested by actually moving to Belgium and taking Russian citizenship. Many other wealthy French citizens began quietly shifting assets overseas.
Hollande’s lack of political virility was highlighted whenever he had to stand next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel while she explained what ails Europe’s economy. France remains precariously close to the economic abyss that has already swallowed Greece and Spain, and is menaced daily by the bond markets. The essayist Nicolas Baverez, one of the severest critics of France’s economy, predicted last month in the French magazine Le Point that the combination of rising public debt, decreasing competitiveness, and rising unemployment will soon cause social havoc in France. He accused its leaders of keeping the French in denial of the approaching disaster. Once France goes, he wrote, the euro would inevitably follow.
The year to date has offered nothing but bad news for the French economy. Its manufacturing woes were exposed by a report published this month showing that France had lost 1,000 factories since 2009. Unemployment is at 10.5 percent. Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls said recently that he was concerned that union protests at job cuts were turning into “social implosions or explosions” as a result of years of worsening economic conditions. A memo was sent at the end of January to police intelligence chiefs around France warning them to look out for the possible “radicalization” of labor unrest. All in all, a grim landscape for the beleaguered Hollande.
But the Sarkozy playbook offered Hollande some invigorating options. With his dramatic interventions in the Ivory Coast and Libya, “Sarko” had demonstrated that, for all the political misery in Europe and the gloomy talk of decline so popular in Paris, France remains a vital political, military, and moral power—if it chooses to be. Mali offered Hollande the chance to show that he was more than marking time in the Élysée. That he too was capable of projecting French power overseas.
“You have a man who has never taken an executive decision in his life, and now he has taken a very big one,” says François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris. “It not only changes other people’s perceptions of him, but his perception of himself and what he is capable of. He is politically transformed.” Hollande’s ability to move so decisively in Mali stemmed from the experience of his senior military adviser, Gen. Benoit Puga. As a young parachutist, Puga had participated in a French raid on Kolwezi, Zaire, in 1978, to release European and Zairian hostages being held by Katangese rebels. Africa ran in his blood, the way it does with many of the best French soldiers. Puga, a rare survivor from Sarkozy’s Élysée, could confidently tell Hollande, once the president had received Mali’s plea for help, that his forces were ready. The forward-deployed French troops in Chad and the Rafale jets at St-Dizier were primed to move.
Islamist groups had been clustering and strengthening in North and West Africa for several years. Parsing their various affiliations and funding sources would keep terrorist experts in jam for years. But their habits and ambitions were familiar. Whether al Qaeda–linked or simply al Qaeda–like, they were highly mobile in their fleets of pick-up trucks, and well armed, especially so since the collapse of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya flooded the local weapons market. They were also vicious in implementing their meathead version of Sharia.
Both the Americans and the French had invested heavily in understanding the threat. The United States had spent more than half a billion dollars developing intelligence and training local troops from Morocco to Nigeria. It hoped to control the problem without putting boots on the ground. But it was always more personal for the French. Not only did it have historical ties in the region, but al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had made direct and bloodcurdling threats against France. “A component of this which the Americans seem keen to forget is that it is al Qaeda,” says Heisbourg. There is a risk, he says, that America is underestimating al Qaeda as it did in the 1990s.
At a security conference in Munich on February 2, Vice President Joe Biden divided al Qaeda into its “core,” based along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its less threatening affiliates, in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and North Africa. However, as Heisbourg points out, AQIM came very close to blowing up the In Amenas gas-processing plant in Algeria in January, before settling for taking and killing hostages. “Had they succeeded,” says Heisbourg, “it would have been one of the biggest explosions since Nagasaki. That’s pretty serious.”
Despite Mali, the sense that there is a French prerogative in Africa is not as puissant as it once was. “If you’re looking from outside, then France has a very deep involvement in Africa,” says Smith. “But from France’s perspective, the days of a very strong, close relationship are gone. All that remains are strong, sentimental relations.” West and North African heads of state still visit Paris in great style and are lavishly received. Mali holds a special place in French hearts dating back to the Malians who fought with the Free French forces during the Second World War. Malians were also part of the first great wave of African immigrants to France in the early 1970s, who were much more warmly received than subsequent arrivals.
But in all of its former African colonies, French influence has been waning for years. During the Cold War, France had supported strongmen in these colonies, who at the very least guaranteed political stability. After the Cold War ended, however, France encouraged the creation of democracies. JeanChristophe Rufin, French ambassador to Senegal between 2007 and 2010, has called this process “Paristroika.” “Poorly prepared, implemented by rival factions and tending towards ethnic voting, the formal process of democratization turned out to be a cause of destabilization, division, and paradoxically led to more authoritarian coups,” he has written. Mali experienced its own military coup last year, by soldiers unhappy with the handling of the Tuareg rebellion. France has also had to cope with new competition for economic interests in Africa. Americans, Arabs, Indians, Latin Americans, and Chinese are all on the prowl, looking to sew up natural resources and access to new consumer markets.
African resentment toward the French has been further stoked over the years by a French visa system, which seems designed to humiliate rather than reward applicants. This awkwardness toward France was shown at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit this week. The leaders of Muslim countries passed a resolution supporting an international military mission to Mali under African leadership, which the French have also encouraged. But the resolution failed to make any mention of France’s actions to date. Only Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, the departing chairman of the OIC, praised the French intervention in a speech.
“The neo-colonial world is dead. It’s over,” says Moreau Defarges of IFRI. “We know we are in a different era. Even if France is successful in Mali, it won’t change what is going on in Africa with the arrival of the Brazilians and Chinese. Africa is moving away from Europe, and this won’t change. This could be France’s last big intervention in Africa. It’s very expensive, and I’m not sure we can afford this. The main headlines in France today are about unemployment and the closing of factories.” The operation in Mali, he says, may be an effort by France to show that it remains a great power, but the truth is that its ability to continue this effort is severely constrained by money and public opinion, which though favorable now would turn sharply if there were more French casualties.
Nonetheless, the operation has underscored France’s special role. Former lieutenant general Jean-Patrick Gaviard, who served as head of France’s Air Defense and Air Operations and senior adviser to the minister of Defense, says that it is important to remember that “France sees itself as both a European and Mediterranean power.” There are very different reasons why France has intervened militarily in Libya and Mali, and diplomatically in Syria, but they boil down to “political and cultural links which are old, strong, and enduring.” He says that any fears France is asserting its power against the interests of Europe and the United States are a joke. “Do our American friends need allies who worry that they don’t have the legitimacy to take action? The Atlantic alliance must depend on a fair division of labor.”
Some of this labor involves the French moving into conceptual space that was seen, not so long ago, as indisputably American. The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy asserts that Libya and Mali have left France playing a role once played by the United States, that of setting the tone for democracy and peace around the world. In a world dogged by relativist politics, only France is standing up for democracy as an inalienable right. Yet Marc-Henri Figuier, a former colonel in the Foreign Legion and now chief executive of ESEI, a French security-policy consulting firm, says that France needs to strike a balance between its ability and willingness to act on its own and the need to draw in allies. “Isolation is a risk,” says Figuier. “We need to act without arrogance, and do all we can to draw in our partners and allies into collective action.” Despite its low public profile in Mali, the United States has been invaluable in providing intelligence and other support services to the French.
Heisbourg believes that the domestic political significance of Mali is limited to the fact that “running a war competently is good for national morale. Seeing our guys doing a great job is essentially pleasing. The beauty of the Mali intervention for the French is that it’s the best of all worlds. It’s without national interest. It’s something where the French have a competitive edge. And they can do it broadly in line with American interest and do it more elegantly than the Americans would.”
The architect of the rapprochement between France and the United States was the now dimly remembered early member of the Obama administration, Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s first national-security adviser. Jones speaks fluent French, having attended high school in Paris, and struck up a warm relationship with his French counterpart, Jean-David Levitte. “As a former supreme allied commander, Europe, Jones understood better than most that the key to European cooperation lies in Paris,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. “If you can get the French on board, everyone else will follow. If you get the British or Germans on board, it might provoke a counterreaction from the French.”
From the very beginning of the Obama administration, the message to the French, says Riedel, was that on Iraq “you were right, we agree with you, so let’s find areas where we can cooperate.” The first major area of cooperation was Afghanistan, and the decision to send more troops. “There really are very, very few allies that can project power outside their own territory like the French can. It was the British and French, now it’s really only the French. It has a military uniquely capable of projecting power.”
The final judgment on France’s interventions in Libya and Mali will take time. Its diplomatic activity on Syria has yet to stop the fighting there.
But what cannot be doubted is that France has shown itself willing to act at moments when its global peers have not. Its planes, helicopters, and paratroopers have become the steel tip in the emerging battle for democracy and stability in Africa.