French Involvement in the Mali Conflict

By Marilyn Z. Tomlins.

Officially there are no French soldiers in Mali.

However, according to military and Ministry of Defense sources who wish to remain anonymous, there are. They say that President François Hollande has discreetly (secretly) dispatched a contingent of elite soldiers to the Republic of Mali, one of France’s former colonies. The official explanation that the French is giving to their European partner states and to the United States and the United Nations is that the soldiers’ mission is to train and organize the disintegrating Malian army; but reports reaching Paris journalists from Bamako, the capital city, is that French drones have begun to operate over the Islamist-held north of the country.

The news leaks arrive just when an international summit held in Paris has come to a close, and, when the news comes from Berlin that Germany’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, in a meeting with the U.N. envoy to the Sahel, Romano Prodi, expressed his concerns that the Mali situation was deteriorating. (The Sahel is a 3,400-mile area of arid savanna, steppes and shrubs which stretches just below the Sahara from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east.)

Said Westerwelle to reporters: “From the north of Mali you need to cross only one international border and you are at the Mediterranean. If the north collapses, if terrorist training camps spring up and becomes a haven for global terrorism, this won’t just endanger Mali and North Africa, it will also threaten us in Europe.”

France has until now faced opposition from Algeria, another of her former colonies and the major power in northern Africa, to French and/or international intervention in Mali in order to clear out the al Qaeda-linked Islamists from the north of the landlocked Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, the annual wage not more than US$1,500.

However, over the past few weeks France has embarked on wooing Algeria for the Algerians to agree that only international action could clear the Islamists from Mali and to end the spread of Islamism to Northern Africa’s other Muslim state.

With this aim in mind France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, and France’s Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, have in the past month made separate visits to Algeria for discussions with various Algerian government ministers.

President Hollande is furthermore scheduled to make an official visit to Algeria early in December.

As a further step towards winning the support of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for military intervention in Mali, President Holland did a mea culpa on October 19 acknowledging the massacre by the Paris police of approximately 200 Algerians who were demonstrating peacefully for independence from France on that day in 1961. (The number of deaths was never established as the police threw many of the bodies into the River Seine.)

Foreign Minister Fabius did however say on Tuesday, October 23, that France has no intention of intervening in Mali. He said that it is for the Africans themselves to do so.  So far only Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – all former French colonies – and the former British colony of Nigeria have said that they would participate in an African force by supplying 3,000 men in arms. Powerful South Africa, considered a leader in Africa since the end of Apartheid and majority rule, has not indicated whether it too would participate in military intervention in Mali.

Meanwhile, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) approximately 450,000 Malians from the north of the country have fled into neighboring countries or down into the so-far un-invaded south.  Many children among those who have remained in the north have been forced into the Islamic fighting units.

Should an agreement be reached for military intervention in Mali, either a solely African one or an international one under the control of the U.N. then that intervention should take place before the rainy season of June-July.

In November 1958 Mali became an autonomous state within the French Community, and in April 1959 joined another French colony, neighboring Senegal to form the Federation of Mali. On June 20, 1960 the Federation proclaimed itself an independent republic with Senegal seceding two months later.

On independence from France 65% of the population were Sunni Muslims, 5% Christians with a majority of these Roman Catholic, and the rest adhered to indigenous animist beliefs. Today 90% are Muslim with a Sunni majority.

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