France returns as player on global stage

2013-01-22 13:07

Paris - It spearheaded the international campaign that led to Muammar Gaddafi's downfall, and now its troops are battling Islamists in Mali.

But France's dramatic return as a major player on the international stage carries as much risk as kudos, analysts said.

France once had the second biggest colonial empire in the world, stretching from the Americas through Africa to Asia. But, like former colonial power Britain, it has taken a back seat to the United States in recent decades.

It may have led opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 - sparking anger among many American politicians - but it followed America's lead in the first Gulf War in 1991 and in Afghanistan in the 2000s.

Yet when Libyan rebels, inspired by the Arab Spring, rose up against Gaddafi in 2011, France quickly became their staunchest supporter and sent warplanes to stop a government troop advance that might have put an end to the insurgency.

That intervention came after a snap decision by president Nicolas Sarkozy as Libyan government forces were poised to take the rebel capital Benghazi.

More risks

It was the start of a UN-backed bombing campaign by a coalition of Nato allies and partners that provided the air cover the rebels needed to eventually oust the dictator a few months later.

Sarkozy's successor, the Socialist Francois Hollande, made a similarly rapid decision to send French combat troops to help the crippled Malian army on 11 January.

The intervention in France's former colony came a day after Islamists allied to al-Qaeda, who had captured the north of the largely desert state, made a push towards the capital Bamako.

France has won plaudits from the international community for both interventions, but the latest one, which will see thousands of French troops on the ground in a conflict some observers say could last for decades, carries far more risks.

"France is hoping for the Africans and the Europeans to take up the baton, but the Europeans are very cowardly," said Philippe Moreau-Defarges of the IFRI think-tank in Paris.

"There is a European suspicion of interventionism," noted Bertrand Badie of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris.

Network of bases

An African force that could be as big as 6 000 troops is due to arrive in Mali, and the United States and European nations have provided transport planes and other forms of logistical help.

But France is the only Western country providing combat troops.

It was able to respond so quickly to the Islamist advance because it is the only European country with a network of bases and thousands of troops stationed in Africa.

Recent years have seen rapidly growing Chinese investment and political influence in Africa, and "this part of the world was escaping from France so it wants to remain present in the region", said Moreau-Defarges.

It again showed its desire to remain a major player in Africa in 2011, when in Ivory Coast, another former colony, French troops helped oust the man who had lost the presidential election and install his rival who had won it.

French officials have rejected suggestions of neocolonialism by pointing out that each intervention came with support from the United Nations or a regional African grouping or after a request from a legitimate government.

4 000 troops

Its venture in Mali, which comes just a month after France last month flew its last combat troops out of Afghanistan, is likely to prove the costliest.

French officials, most notably Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, initially portrayed the campaign as limited to halting the rebel advance, primarily involving the use of airpower and likely to be limited to a matter of weeks.

It has since emerged France's intervention could involve up to 4 000 troops and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday redefined the mission as seeking to help the Malian army achieve "the total reconquest of Mali".

That would mean eliminating Islamist resistance throughout the north of the country, an area bigger than France, into which extremists come and go with relative ease over porous desert borders with neighbouring states.

British Prime Minister David Cameron underlined the scale of the challenge on Sunday, warning that the fight against Islamic extremists in the region needed "a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months".

The United States tried and failed to eradicate extremists who posed a threat to the West when it sent troops to Somalia in the 1990s, noted Badie of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris.

And the massive US-led operation to crush the Taliban and restore stability in Afghanistan is drawing to a close with less than glorious results, he noted.

In the sands of the Sahara, "one finds the same Somalo-Afghan scenario", he warned.

  • fidel.uncensored - 2013-01-22 13:19

    Colonial countries like France are learning how hard it is to live without your colonies. The Empire is in the business of trying to re-colonise what it has lost. The French would be wise to remember their war in Algeria, and in Vietnam where they left in disgrace.

  • thusla.molepo - 2013-01-22 13:20

    Nonsense.....blood thirsty imperialists....testing their military might and power with the weakest...

      avremel.niselow - 2013-01-22 13:34

      How is it being imperialist to answer the plea of a country in dire straits?

      moeg.malseun - 2013-01-22 13:36

      @ thusula.mplepo Islamist rebels that is over throwing a democratic country up until recently , How is that Imperialistic, how is helping Africans who asked for the intervention, cause they were being over run a bad thing, will you let Africans suffer just because white are willing to help? You are being arrogant and sort sighted and you need to wake up people are dying !and that's not right

      fidel.uncensored - 2013-01-22 13:48

      @Moegoe, how soon people like you forget that the very same so called government is made up of the military junta that took power through a coup last year. When one discusses Mali, one shouldn't forget the role that this same France and its Nato terrorist allies played in destabilising this region by proliferating the place with all sorts of weapons in its haste to depose Gaddafi (after being warned by Russia). These so called Islamists are the Natives of Northen Mali, Tauregs and Black Africans chased from Libya by the rebels that France helped to put into power.

      gert_swart - 2013-01-22 14:16

      Then why did the AU as well as President Zuma welcome the French troops in Mali?

      fidel.uncensored - 2013-01-22 14:55

      How many other AU and Zuma's decisions have you agreed with in the past! The AU's welcoming of French troops in Mali doesn't preclude you from thinking. Have you outsourced your critical thinking faculties to the AU and Zuma?

      gert_swart - 2013-01-22 15:22

      @fidel.uncensored - Are you saying that President Zuma is assisting imperialists to re-colonialise Africa?

      fidel.uncensored - 2013-01-22 15:32

      Your so called president (and the ANC) is comprised (remember the French arms companies that bought him) and has no credibility in the intl arena. He made a pronouncement on the Ivory Coast regarding Gbabo's election, and no sooner was he summoned to France and when he came back he changed his views about who had won the election there. Zuma is a cipher. He's there to say and do what he's told needs to be said and done. Don't look to him for principles or beliefs of any kind beyond the mere instrumentality of occupying the office. You should thank me for bringing small but powerful snippets of reality to your attention.

      moeg.malseun - 2013-01-22 15:38

      @fidel the miletery coup happened because it took the civilian government to long to respond just like the AU, these Tuareg you speck of has been living in norther mali you right but this militant Islamist who it trying to force people to become radicals like bin laden , has been trained and is forcing quite moderate people into sharee law, how is that right , they blew up historical , mosks in timaktoo, and thay have killed people who don't want to conform to there dictatorship , people who were just surviving on a day to day basis good people moslem people

      fidel.uncensored - 2013-01-22 15:48

      The rebellion against a remote and up to now indifferent colonialist-appointed administration in Bamako is probably a just cause. The French and its Western allies are maligning an internal dispute within Mali with another specious “war on terror” narrative and in that way these powers are giving themselves a mandate to meddle in that country. Western intervention to "remedy" the damages ensuing from past Western foreign policy interventions aimed at stabilizing these regions. If this isn't theatre of the absurd, I don't know what is.

      gert_swart - 2013-01-22 19:39

      @fidel.uncensored - Would you rather prefer an Islamist government imposing sharia law on the people of Mali? What is the freedom in that?

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