Foreign Policy Blogs

France in War: Operation Serval

Joe Penney/REUTERS

Joe Penney/REUTERS

Finally, the French government has launched a military operation, under the code name Serval, in Mali after a distress call by the Malian President and in accordance with the U.N. Charter. The degradation of the internal situation in Mali and the growing risks of terrorism in Mali and its spread throughout the Sahel have been the reasons behind the French intervention. Rumors of occupation and re-conquest of Mali, a former French colony, have been denied by the French government and army.

Domestically, in France, the Malian mission has been extremely well received by French citizens. Many have claimed that the military intervention in Mali has finally made President Hollande, presidential, meaning credible. The Malian operation is certainly a turning point in the

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

presidency of François Hollande offering a new dimension to his presidency. Historically, the position of the President of France in the Fifth Republic has been the embodiment of the State and should represent a strong paternalist figure. War, certainly, offers a new aspect to Hollande’s presidency often perceived too soft.

According to the IFOP, a French polling agency, a report published on January 14, 2013 finds that 63% of French people are favorable to the war in Mali. Interestingly, the support to the war in Mali goes across party lines with 77% of approval for the socialist and 63% for the UMP, right wing party. The support to the war in Mali figures along the sides of previous military interventions, highly favored by the French, such as the one in Libya in 2011, with 66%, and Bosnia in 1994, at 68%.

As presented in an article by the Wall Street Journal, “A short mission that ends with a clear victory will be beneficial for Mr. Hollande,” said Stefan Collignon, a professor at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. “But the longer French troops remain in Mali, the more discontent is likely to grow in France.” The positive look at the war from France will be tested in the weeks to come once French citizens realize the extent of the mission, the possible extension of the deployment and the growing number of casualties. As it was the case in Libya, French citizens were very confident at first, but the feeling of optimism quickly faded away in a matter of month once they realized the extent of the challenge.

It is still too early to know the outcomes of operation Serval. But reports are already emerging in the press, such as a recent article in the Financial Times, underlining concerns in London and Washington about the feasibility and success rate of the mission. The French intervention is based on the commitment that neighboring countries, such as Senegal, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, would contribute to the effort of war by sending troops in Mali. It already



appears that it would take longer than expected for these countries to send the troops promised, which could not only affect the chances of success, but increase the risks and challenges confronted by the French army already on the ground. The second aspect deals with ground operations conducted by French troops. It was first assumed that France would not send troops on the ground, fearing a possible long-term mission. But on January 15th, as confirmed by Admiral Guillaud, the French army has launched a ground offensive side by side with Malian army. The goal of the ground operation is to dislodge the rebels estimated at 1000 to 1500 terrorists. This new step in the French intervention in Mali may certainly changed the type of military intervention as well as the domestic support of another ground operation at the time when French troops are still being withdraw from Afghanistan. A lengthy and costly war – financially and human – will not received support at home; President Hollande is well aware of it.

The map, below, developed by Le Monde illustrates very clearly the zone of conflict and the location of French soldiers.

France in War: Operation Serval


Below is the complete press conference given by the minister of foreign affairs on January 14th concerning the military objectives in Mali.

Mali – Press conference given by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Paris, 14 January 2013


THE MINISTER – I would like to provide an update on the diplomatic situation relating to the military operation in Mali.  First of all, I would like to remind you of the objectives of this intervention, which we initiated at the request of the Malian authorities in order to respond to an emergency.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to reaffirm the three objectives, and I want to confirm them to you.  The first is to stop the southward offensive by the armed terrorist groups who were threatening the whole of Mali and particularly the capital, Bamako.  This operation is under way and is going satisfactorily.  The second objective is to prevent the collapse of Mali.  This is the essential precondition for restoring Mali’s territorial integrity.  The third objective is to allow the implementation of the international resolutions, whether those of the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS or the EU.  This is of course our main objective.  Regarding the United Nations, we have to bear in mind that three components must be addressed:  the security component, obviously, the political component and the development component.


I want to stress that this intervention falls strictly within international law.  It responds to a formal request by the Malian President and is being conducted in accordance with the UN Charter, in compliance with UNSCRs 2056, 2071 and 2085.  The framework is therefore the UN, Mali is making the request, and our partners are the Africans and the international community.  Obviously, we don’t intend to act alone.  We have – and I would like to highlight this – almost unanimous international political support.  We’ve acted in a fully transparent manner;  we’ve informed all our partners.  Yesterday, the UN Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, spoke to me at length on the telephone to confirm to me – and I quote – that we have the United Nations’ full support.


I have personally been in contact with many of my counterparts – I will mention several of them:  a few moments ago, Mrs Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Mr  Westerwelle, Germany’s Foreign Minister, Mr Hague, British Foreign Secretary, Mr Terzi, Italy’s Foreign Minister, Mr Timmermans, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, and Mr  Søvndal, Denmark’s Foreign Minister.  I spoke to Senegal’s President Macky Sall, to my Algerian counterpart, Mr Medelci, whom I will contact again in a few moments, to Dr Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, and to Ms Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Foreign Minister.  They all confirmed their country’s support to me.

This morning, I had a meeting [in Paris] with Mr Coulibaly, Mali’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who came to see me to update me on the situation on behalf of President Traoré and Prime Minister Sissoko, and asked me to pass on a letter to President Hollande from the Malian President, warmly and sincerely thanking the French people on behalf of the Malian people.  Our international partners’ support also includes operational support.  Several countries are engaged alongside us – the United Kingdom is providing strategic and tactical airlift;  Germany is looking at logistical, humanitarian and medical assistance;  Belgium is providing us with means of transport, as is Denmark;  the United States is providing support in the areas of transport, communications and intelligence.  Preparations are being stepped up for the deployment of a West African force.  Nigeria is due to provide 600 troops.  Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Senegal have announced that they will each send contingents of around 500 troops and Benin 300.  Chad should also provide a sizeable contingent;  further support has also been announced.  This international mobilization is essential because France cannot remain alone alongside Mali.  The decisions taken before Christmas by the UN, the African Union, ECOWAS and the EU pave the way for an international operation, primarily an African operation.


We’re currently working on the swift implementation of these decisions.  We’re working in close cooperation with the UN.  A new Security Council meeting devoted to Mali is taking place at our request this very afternoon in New York.  Our goal is to deploy, as swiftly as possible, what’s being called the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, or AFISMA.  The military command is already being deployed to Bamako.  A conference will take place tomorrow over there in order to plan troop deployment.  A donors’ conference will take place in Addis Ababa at the end of January on the sidelines of the African Union summit.

I have just spoken to Mrs Ashton, who confirmed that an exceptional meeting of the Council of EU foreign ministers would take place this week to examine the situation in Mali.  We will take decisions at the meeting allowing us to accelerate the deployment of the EU training and advisory mission to support the Malian army.  We’ll also have to examine how our European partners can contribute to the deployment of AFISMA.


I want to add that obviously everything is being done to ensure the safety of the French citizens on the ground in Mali and throughout the region.  Security arrangements have been stepped up, notably by sending GIGN [elite gendarmerie unit] gendarmes.  The French lycée in Bamako is closed this week so that a detailed security assessment can be carried out and to avoid as far as possible any risks being taken.  Regarding the hostages, everyone understands the families’ concern, which is legitimate.  The head of the crisis centre, Mr Didier Le Bret, is in constant contact with these families.  I myself have just received hostage Gilberto Rodrigues Leal’s family, to whom I reaffirmed France’s determination.

Everything is being done to limit the risks but we will not protect the hostages by allowing Mali to become a haven for terrorists.  Indeed, it’s important to remember that it’s these very groups that are holding our hostages and could have taken complete control of Mali if we hadn’t intervened.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the international background as I speak.  By intervening in Mali, France is shouldering her international responsibilities and fulfilling her international obligations.  Vital interests were at stake for us, for Africa, for Europe and for the entire international community and we therefore had to take action.  The urgency of the situation meant that we had to act swiftly, but our European and African partners and our partners at the UN are now demonstrating that they are also ready to step forward.

Q. – A jihadist column has taken the town of Diabaly, in the west of the country;  does this worry you?

THE MINISTER – I heard these reports through my colleague the Minister of Defence, who confirmed to me what you’ve just told me.  It’s about being very active and vigilant on the west side and at the same time active and vigilant on the east side.  Our forces have received instructions to deal with this.


Q. – On Somalia, there have been some particularly striking tweets this afternoon.  What’s your comment on these tweets of the photos published by al-Shabaab in Somalia?

THE MINISTER – You’ve obviously heard about this tragic outcome, which has cost the lives of our nationals.  We warned against any exploitation of the issue.  I did so yesterday, as did my friend and colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian.  We condemn the exploitation of what must clearly be called murders.


Q. – There are reports that the head of Ansar Dine has been wounded in a raid by French strikes;  can you confirm this to us?

THE MINISTER – There are a lot of reports, but before confirming all this, checks are necessary.  They’re currently under way.

Q. – Does France know where the hostages are being held, and if so is anything being done to avoid them being put at risk through French bombardments?

THE MINISTER – As you know, since the outset we’ve adopted a strategy of maximum action while remaining as discreet as possible, because any information given could be used by the kidnappers against the hostages.  So you’ll allow me to remain very discreet on these points.


Q. – Do you hope Algerian support will go beyond mere authorization for flying over the territory?  Do you have any assurances on this?  Thank you.

THE MINISTER – Prime Minister Sissoko was on a visit to Algeria.  I think he’s now due to return to his country.  I myself intend to have a meeting with the Algerian authorities late in the afternoon, after leaving you.  We’ll take stock.  But I had the opportunity to say that the Algerian authorities – who, like us, are obviously worried about what’s happening on their doorstep, after having been very hard hit by terrorism for years themselves – appreciate the seriousness of all this.  The Algerian authorities authorized our planes to fly over their country.  We are, and will remain, in close contact with them.


Q. – (on the UK’s support)

THE MINISTER – Britain immediately provided us with her support.  Mr David Cameron made this clear to the French President.  William Hague called me personally, and we’re seeing once again that when the going gets tough, the British stand alongside us.  Other nations do too, of course.  So we’ve got a meeting, to be convened by Mrs Ashton, who told me earlier that she was envisaging it this week, in two or three days’ time.  Along with all our European colleagues, we’ll take stock of the situation and most probably decide to confirm and accelerate what Europe has pledged in terms of training.  And individual gestures will also be made by many countries, of course, including Britain, Belgium, Denmark and others.  There’s no doubt that the Europeans will stand alongside the Malians and alongside us, because Mali and Africa will clearly be at stake, but also Europe.  Indeed, I think everyone’s understood that what explains the international support and the people’s support is that if terrorism develops, the whole of Africa is targeted and, as an indirect consequence, Europe.


Q. – I’d like to come back to the Islamists’ capture of the town of Diabaly.  Were you expecting it, and what are the consequences on the ground of that town’s capture, please?

THE MINISTER – On the strictly military aspect, I’d rather refer you to my defence colleague.

Q. – On the deployment of African forces, do you think this deployment of combat troops is a matter of hours, days or weeks?  Secondly, on the instructions for French companies in Mali – I’m thinking of the public buildings and works sector – are they continuing to work or have their sites been closed, and are you possibly repatriating…

THE MINISTER – On the first point, I’ve told you that the Chief of Staff is now at work on the ground, that pledges of African troop contingents are being gathered and that the military and civilian authorities are quite obviously going to do everything to ensure those troops are engaged very quickly, as quickly as possible of course.

On the second question, about companies – which the Malians are handling – there are no problems.  Obviously in areas in difficulty or still under terrorist control, there won’t be any activity, but there wasn’t any already.

Q. – Even so, can you give us more precise information about the timeframe for the African forces’ deployment in Mali?  You’re saying “as quickly as possible”, but what does that mean?  Does it mean France is going to be alone for the operations all this week or are you expecting deployments this week?  Are we talking days, weeks or months?

THE MINISTER – I can simply say to you:  the quicker, obviously, the better.  There are questions about transport, but thanks in particular to the support a number of countries are giving us, this transport is being put in place.  Once again, my defence colleague in charge of these questions will be perhaps more precise than me, but the political objective is clear:  to act as swiftly as possible.


Q. – On Algeria, do you think she supports the operation and France’s policy in Mali?  Is it full, wholehearted support?

THE MINISTER – I’m not going to speak for our Algerian friends.  They’ll say what they wish to say.  We are, have been and will remain in close contact with them.  When we asked permission for aircraft to fly over their territory, we were granted it immediately.

Q. – I’d like to know how the meeting went with your Malian counterpart – he came to express thanks, of course, but perhaps he also had a few specific requests?

THE MINISTER – We reviewed the situation, of course, because he represents the Malian government.  We talked about the situation on the ground and the psychological situation.  We also reviewed the questions you’ve asked, which are legitimate, concerning the African troops’ contribution, the donors’ conference, but also the need today to carry out a security operation.  The political aspects and issues linked to development in the near future also still need to be dealt with.  We quite obviously tackled the whole subject and we’re going to see each other again extremely soon because it’s very possible he’ll be joining us for the meeting which will take place in Europe between the foreign ministers./.




Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.