Like many of his predecessors, Francois Hollande promised before his election to be less interventionist in Africa. Indeed, France had no intention of being on the front line in Mali. However, the speed at which terrorist groups progressed from the north to the south of Mali, the weakness of government forces and the slow pace at which the African intervention force was assembled confronted the French president with a simple choice: Act now to stop the jihadists or do nothing and risk letting them reach Bamako and establish their headquarters in the capital city, as the Taliban did in Kabul in 1996.
Inaction was not an option. So, while events have accelerated French intervention, it was not based on an improvised decision, but rather it was a logical move matching the importance of what is at stake. This includes the need to protect about 6,000 French nationals — and, more broadly, to prevent jihadist groups creating in Mali a state supporting terrorism and imposing their law across a wide area of Africa — right at Europe’s door. That is why French intervention has won support from African countries — significantly Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbour — and the unanimous endorsement by the UN Security Council.
Does this intervention entail risks? Naturally. First, to French and other hostages in north Mali and to French citizens at home and elsewhere. Moreover, this kind of military action always presents the danger of becoming more and more committed, and more and more stuck. Hollande, who decided to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan, knows that. However, these dangers must be weighed against those of immobilism, appeasement and giving in to blackmail.
In an ideal world, negotiations with local organisations could have resulted in them parting company with the most radical groups. Unfortunately, that was not an option because the groups involved joined forces — with the approval of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — to rush to Bamako and fight. France was left with no choice but to respond swiftly to the Malian government’s request and intervene without awaiting the arrival of the African military force — which, as a result, is being assembled more rapidly than originally scheduled.
The intervention calls for three comments. First, its international legality is clear and has been questioned by no one. Military action has been taken at the request of the Malian government and formally endorsed by all the relevant global and regional bodies, beginning with the UN. Russia and China, which have been adamantly opposed to any kind of action in Syria, have given their approval. That is important not only to put to rest possible accusations of neocolonialism, but also to allow other countries to offer logistical support in the future.
Second, it speaks to France’s role in Africa. Without reverting to “Francafrique” — a term usually used for a relationship that had more to do with maintaining the postcolonial status quo than with advancing democracy — Hollande must stand up to his responsibilities. He cannot escape reality: Few European countries have the knowledge, the military means and the political will to be a relevant operator in Africa, whether dispensing financial help or staging military intervention in an emergency.
The important thing is to know which cause justifies this role. In that instance, it is fair to say that the aim is two-fold: To avoid the destabilisation of the Sahel countries and prevent the emergence of a terrorist threat on European soil and to preserve the future of a continent that is becoming a pole of development for tomorrow’s world.
The final point relates to European defence. France was compelled to act alone in Mali.
This means two things. First, when military action is involved, someone must take the lead — but France has now won the support of its European partners. Second, Mali should be a wake-up call for those Europeans who favour soft power as the sole tool for European Union (EU) international policy, abandoning the military action to the US. Unfortunately, the world does not work that way. If Europeans want to be taken seriously, rather than leaving the US with the burden of playing Mars while they play Venus, they must use the means at their disposal — including, if necessary, force — to defend European interests.
Gerard Errera, a former French ambassador to the UK, is chairman of Blackstone Group in France.