Tuesday, January 22, 2013
By Rory Mulholland
PARIS — It spearheaded the international campaign that led to Moamer Kadhafi'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 Kadhafi 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.
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 January 11.
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.
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.
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.