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France walks tightrope on northern Mali intervention

Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2012-09-26

Caught between its colonial past and recent threats by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to kill French hostages in the region, France is navigating a tricky political and military tightrope when it comes to recent events in Mali.

It has become one of France’s stickiest diplomatic situations.

“When it comes to the Mali issue, Paris is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Philippe Hugon, an Africa specialist at France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

Mali and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reached an agreement Sunday on the deployment of an African military force to help liberate northern Mali from armed Islamist groups that have been in the region for six months.

France, however, has struggled to find its place in Mali’s current political and military situation.

Mali was a French colony until 1960, and France treads lightly in its diplomacy with the western African country, fearing accusations of interference.

But now, with militants from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatening to execute six French hostages taken in Sahel – a lawless, sub-Saharan region that is becoming a launch pad for Islamist groups – French authorities can no longer remain on the sidelines.

“That is where things get complicated for France,” Hugon said.

A ‘facilitator’, but not an ‘actor’

Ever since a coup last March that allowed Islamic militants to take over huge areas of northern Mali, Paris has been trying to walk the line between a low-profile approach and a more active strategy. Since taking office in May, President François Hollande has pursued a mostly hands-off policy when it comes to Africa, according to Hugon.

“France must support regional, UN-backed African organisations and offer them logistical aid if an intervention is pursued,” Hollande said last week. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reiterated that position on Tuesday, specifying that France would not send troops onto Malian soil.

France also knows that a direct military intervention could be fatal for the hostages held by AQIM – as it was in early 2011, when the intervention of French special forces in Mali
resulted in the deaths of two hostages, Vincent Delory and Antoine de Léocour.

On Sept.19, AQIM slammed the French government for “presumptuousness in calling for the invasion of the Muslim country of Mali” and openly threatened France: “This insane initiative will not only lead to the deaths of the hostages, but will submerge all of France in the [northern region of] Azawad.”

Under such mounting pressure, Paris has no choice but to proceed with caution. “France can only play the role of facilitator, not actor,” a French diplomat told AFP, speaking under condition of anonymity.

French special forces already in the region

But if France is avoiding the spotlight in Mali, it’s been more active behind the scenes. French daily Le Figaro reported on Monday that “a hundred members of French special forces have already been deployed in the region”. According to the news daily, France will also be sending naval commandos and maritime patrol aircraft, as well as setting up a surveillance operation based in Niger.

The French government therefore appears to be discreetly training the very African military force that it has been calling for to eradicate Islamists in the north. “France has always maintained a presence in the country via its secret services,” Hugon said. “Today, it’s using its know-how to train and support ECOWAS forces that are not powerful enough to lead this kind of operation on their own.”

Lukewarm European support

In order for the anti-AQIM strategy to be operational, ECOWAS will also need the support of Algeria and other European countries. But even neighbouring Algeria, “the country most directly concerned by this crisis”, according to Hugon, has remained silent.

Despite its considerable military strength, “Algeria is hanging back and refusing any interference,” Hugon said. “The country does not wish to dive back into a terrorist nightmare" after dealing with the GIA, an armed Islamic group involved in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s.

European support, meanwhile, is still lukewarm – even though, as Hugon pointed out, “the Islamisation of Mali, a country situated at the doorstep of Europe, should be at the forefront of European concerns”.

For several weeks, French authorities have been trying to convince their European and American partners to act. But the timing this week may be better: Hollande and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will both be in New York on Wednesday for UN talks at which a global strategy for Mali, and a special envoy to Sahel, are expected to be announced.

Date created : 2012-09-25

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