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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: January 28, 2013 NO. 5 JANUARY 31, 2013
Walking a Fine Line
France desires to renew its influence in Mali
By He Wenping

The reason why France sent troops to Mali on January 11 was that the rebels in north Mali captured Konna, a town of strategic importance for Bamako, the country's capital. The capture put the fragile Malian Government in a difficult position. After receiving a request to intervene by the interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore, France helped to recapture the important town.

This result showed that the direct intervention by French troops changed the conditions in Mali by preventing Bamako from being conquered by the rebels, halting the impetus of Islamic extremists driving the war to south Mali. More importantly, the action increased France's influence in Africa and consolidated its status in Africa as a world power. It was reported that after the Malian Government recaptured Konna, local people were seen waving the French flag and celebrating.

Current French President Francois Hollande is widely considered to be the French president with the least interest in Africa. In Mali, he was initially reluctant to get involved. At the 14th Summit of Francophone Countries held in October 2012, he stressed that the crisis should be solved through UN resolutions and that West African countries should help out militarily in the north. He pledged that France would provide logistical support for their intervention, but would not directly send troops there. But now, Hollande changed his low-key stance and dispatched French troops. The major reason behind the action is the long-lasting historical connection between Africa and France.

Africa is the region most influenced by France and since the Charles de Gaulle administration (1959-69), Africa has been seen as a "forward base" that supports France's status as a world power. Maintaining its special interests in Francophone countries is the core of its Africa policy.

France has long maintained its relations with African countries through the following four channels: personal friendships among state leaders and the France-Africa Summit; development aid to Africa and economic and financial control over African countries, especially the Francophone countries; France-Africa cultural cooperation to maintain and expand the influence of the French language in Africa; and military intervention and presence in Africa.

In recent years, with the weakening of these channels, France's influence in Africa has declined. In order to renew this influence, France, which is now experiencing a debt crisis along with other European countries, has to pursue a military option. Thus, it is easy to understand why the Nicolas Sarkozy administration actively interfered in the war in Libya and the civil war caused by general elections in Cote d'Ivoire. Hollande has followed suit.

One of the negative effects of France sending troops to Mali is that it unconsciously reminds many people of France's status as "Africa's gendarme" during the colonial period. The French Government explained that its military intervention was in response to a request by the Malian Government to put down the rebellion. However, when the Government of the Central African Republic was attacked by rebels, and subsequently asked France for help, the European power refused. In this sense, "Africa's gendarme" employs double standards when dealing with African affairs.

Moreover, military intervention in Mali places a big strain on France economically. France will face increased expenditures on its own homeland security and the threat of terrorist attacks at home because of its military action in Africa. Currently, Islamic extremists in north Mali and Somalia, and the Taliban, have threatened to retaliate against France by launching terrorist attacks, saying that all French people in the Muslim world are responsible for France's military action in Mali. Ultimately, some international observers believe France might become stuck in the mire of the Mali crisis and might not be able to get out easily, similar to the U.S. situation in Afghanistan.

The author is a research fellow of African studies with the Institute of Western Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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