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French connection to Mali, past and present

French and a Malian Army officer confer in Mali's capital city of Bamako on Jan. 15, 2013. France has sent military forces to support its former colony Mali in combating rebel forces. Photo credit: Joe Penney/Reuters

A French and a Malian Army officer confer in Mali’s capital city of Bamako on Jan. 15, 2013. France has sent military forces to support its former West African colony in combating rebel separatists. Photo credit: Joe Penney/Reuters

Should the U.S. government ever come under threat, would the U.K.–its colonial overlords from way back when–send over troops to stabilize the situation and keep the country and democracy intact (as presently designed)?

Sounds pretty far-fetched, but that is exactly what France is aiming to do now in the West African nation of Mali. In a siege that begun in spring 2012, a group of Tuareg militants took over key outposts in the northern region of Mali and declared an independent state; they now control an area that exceeds the size of France itself. Further movement by the extremists–who have been linked to Islamists with ties to al Qaeda–in the last few weeks caused France to get directly involved by sending ground forces to Mali and ordering air strikes to drive back the rebels and preserve the Malian state.

Yes France, the country that colonized (sometimes in brutal fashion) West Africa during the 19th century when European powers swept through the continent, is now sending troops to support the independence of one of its former land holdings. The area that contains present-day Mali was called French Sudan. Even after colonization crumbled in the 20th century, France continued to exert its influence in the region by supporting its preferred leaders, including some  ruthless dictators.

So you’d think its brazen move of sending military forces to Mali would be received with trepidation, as further meddling by Europe into internal African affairs, and an infringement on Mali’s democracy and sovereignty. But, quite the contrary, French presence seems to have been welcomed. Younouss Dicko, a Malian political party leader, told John Thorne of Christian Science Monitor “It’s valorous of France to come aid Mali.” Malians have cheered French troops and bought and waived French flags.

Also France initially resisted getting involved. Troops were sent only after recent rebel aggression and an urgent call for help from President Dioncounda Traouré. More broadly French President Francois Hollande has publicly stated that he wants to turn over a new leaf in French-African relations by developing positive, respectful partnerships.

Yet in another wrinkle to this developing dispute, France is not defending a democratically elected government. Mali’s government collapsed last year in a military coup; Traoure is an interim president while the military is in control. The establishment of lasting democracy is in doubt.

Are France’s actions justified? Is it ok for them to provide military aid if Mali requested it? Should they be intervening in the affairs of another sovereign state, be it one whose leaders took power in a coup? How long will the French military stay in Mali, and will local sentiment toward them change if the rebels hold out? Will the ghosts of colonization resurface if France overstays its welcome?

These are complex questions without clear answers. One thing is certain: France is, at least for now, facing a new threat in old, familiar territory. It must tread very carefully or else instability will follow where stability was intended.

Click here to read FPA blogger Julia Knight’s thoughts on France’s current involvement in Mali.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”