Mali: France’s necessary but risky bet

French president François Hollande trying to defuse off Al Qaeda’s bomb in Mali
French president François Hollande trying to defuse off Al Qaeda’s bomb in Mali
14 January 2013 – Libération (Paris)

On January 11, the French army launched a series of air strikes to keep Islamist armed groups, who have controlled the north of Mali since the spring, from spreading to the south of the country. While generally recognising the need to intervene, the European press points out the risks that such an military operation entails.

Under the mandate of the UN, the French forces are acting with the logistical support of the British to support Malian troops against the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, fighting for independence for the provinces of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, and against the Salafists under Ansar Dine, who are fighting to establish an Islamic regime in this part of Mali.

“François Hollande can be happy to have stopped the Taliban of the sands,” writes Libération, which nevertheless wonders where Operation Serval is headed –

Libération, Paris

Will it be content just with stopping the irresistible rise of the Islamists in Mali? Will it, with some token African troops, recover the north, which for nine months has been in the hands of religious fanatics who are imposing an Islamism that is at odds with the moderate and tolerant practices of Malians? [...] Today, French troops may be welcomed by an exhausted population, which is largely opposed to the Islamists. But the Malians will not support the presence of the troops of the former coloniser for very long, and for good reason. There is no military solution and, and what's more, no French solution to the Mali crisis.

Faced with the rise of the Islamists, French President François Hollande has “chosen the lesser evil,” writes Le Monde.

Le Monde, Paris

Doing nothing is not an option, and would probably lead to a situation requiring much more significant military action later. But France cannot stay the course alone. To help Mali reclaim its territory is, first of all, the business of the states in West Africa. To prevent the establishment of a jihadist hotbed in the Sahel is the interest of all Europe.

By intervening in Mali, “François Hollande has taken a risk,” writes Süddeutsche Zeitung, adding it's a risk he must not be left to take alone.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich

International troops, drawn in the main from countries of the African Union, should be brought in. France also needs military aid from its European allies. [...] The European Union has been debating the Malian issue for months, and should be ashamed of itself for what it has accomplished. [...] Even today, Europe is suffering from the Islamist terrorist network located in North Africa. What happens on the other shore of the Mediterranean, which is not called *Mare Nostrum* by chance, can leave no one in Europe indifferent. This is not the filthy backyard of Europe, but its very neighbourhood.

“The problem with the French intervention is that it is French,” says Tageszeitung. The alternative daily from Berlin deplores a “colonialism of the left” and notes that –

Logo – Die Tageszeitung, Berlin

[Nicolas] Sarkozy was much criticised for the French participation in military operations in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire, but at least these operations kept strictly to internationally defined conditions. That Hollande would fall into step behind Sarkozy - who would have thought it?

Furthermore, warns The Independent, intervening in Mali may “fuel radical Islamists' narrative of yet another... assault on Islam.” For columnist Owen Jones –

The Independent, London

It is disturbing - to say the least - how [Prime Minister David] Cameron has led Britain into Mali's conflict without even a pretence at consultation. Troops will not be sent, we are told; but the term “mission creep” exists for a reason, and an escalation could surely trigger deeper British involvement. The West has a terrible record of aligning itself with the most dubious of allies: the side we have picked are far from human-rights-loving democrats... It is the responsibility of all of us to scrutinise what our governments do in our name; if we cannot learn that from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, then it is hopeless.

In Bucarest, Adevărul is worried about “the major consequences for a vast swathe of Africa” of Operation Serval, and about “the security of the EU and its citizens, inside or outside the community space.” Despite this, the paper notes, “the intervention was necessary due to the unprecedented increase in the number of Islamic cells [...] both north and south of the Sahara.” It adds, however –

Logo – Adevărul, Bucharest

Now that France is directly involved in military operations, it is possible to expect scenarios like Iraq or Afghanistan to develop, only on a broader and more complex scale.

“The question now is whether and how the EU will mobilise,” adds European Voice. The Brussels-based weekly inquires about the state of European defence and asks

Logo – European Voice, Brussels

Will some EU countries send troops to fight with the French? Will the EU limit itself to training others' troops?[..] Islamist control of the desert - a base for potential attacks around the region and in Europe - is clearly a huge cause for concern for France and, it thinks, it should be for Europe as a whole. But the intervention and the questions that it will throw up will presumably concentrate minds on a big EU summit in December on defence co-operation. Issues related to Europe's military capability clearly mean a lot to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. With Mali's 'help', those questions will probably matter a lot more to other policymakers and ordinary Europeans by the end of the year.