Since the beginning of 2013, France has been flexing its military muscles on the African continent. Following a botched hostage rescue attempt in Somalia – for which the French public was seemingly forgiving – French military forces have deployed in Mali, in what is now their largest military operation. With 2,500 French soldiers on the ground (and counting), Operation Serval, as the deployment is named, dwarfs the French military presence in Afghanistan (1,500 soldiers), their second biggest operation.
For decades, France has had a permanent military presence on the African continent. Following decolonization, France signed defense agreements with some of its former colonies, giving the French armed forces the right to intervene to preserve stability – one of the foundations of “La FrancAfrique”, a conceptual way of describing the deep ties between France and its former African colonies. While the term has a negative connotation today, it wasn’t always the case – indeed, the relationship between France and Africa is a complex one, in constant evolution. In recent years, many of these agreements were renegotiated, explicitely prohibiting France from intervening in the internal affairs of its hosts. Nevertheless, while the French military presence has become increasingly limited in Africa, France continues to frequently intervene in African conflicts – under a UN mandate, like in Cote d’Ivoire, or on its own, like in Mali.
As a result of this long-term, sometimes tumultuous, relationship, in which France’s military presence is a lynchpin and French interventions in Africa are a regular occurence, the French public has a sense that Operation Serval falls clearly within the historical role of France on the continent. As noted by psychologist Anne-Laure Gannac, Malians live in France, French people live in Mali, there are historical, cultural, political and economic ties that bind these two countries. In a way, the French public considers this intervention as part of their mandate on the African continent, and there is a – rather rare! – sense of unity around this issue. In fact, recent polls are revealing: as of January 18, 65% of the French population supports the intervention in Mali (up from 63% a week earlier). In addition – and equally revealing – political allegiance doesn’t seem to undermine this majority support; in the same January 18 poll, 63% of opposition (UMP) supporters backed the decision of Socialist president François Hollande to intervene in Mali.
A few other important points to note to help explain French support for the intervention: as of today, there have yet to be reports of “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian casualties) as a result of French actions. This, in my view, is key – French public support may deteriorate if instead of a well-organized, internationally sanctioned and supported intervention, Operation Serval begins to look more like Iraq or Afghanistan. And, as the left-leaning daily newspaper Liberation notes, while there is strong support from the political opposition on the right, questions regarding the objectives of the mission – “its contours, its modalities and the François Hollande method” – are beginning to emerge. On the other side of the political spectrum, concerns regarding the true motives of the intervention are being raised – Jean-Luc Mélenchon, former far left presidential candidate, is suggesting that economic interests in the natural resource sector are the driving force behind France’s decision to intervene. Soon enough, politics may get in the way of national unity.
Finally, while France is currently received logistical support from countries such as the United States and Canada, the lack of involvement from EU allies could also be a sticking point moving forward. Some are already asking why should France be solely responsible for keeping the peace in the Sahel region if an Islamist take over of Bamako threatens stability not just in France, but across Europe and beyond its borders. But for now, President François Hollande is looking more presidential than ever in the eyes of the French public, and he’s basking in the positive public outlook on his gamble in Mali.