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London Review of Books: In Search of Monsters

Author: Stephen Smith
January 30, 2013

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"Jihadists were already finding it hard to operate in North Africa before the Arab Spring of 2011. Since then their problems have become almost insurmountable: they thrive only in countries where Islamists are in prison, not where they are in the ascendant or contesting elections. As for Europe, the last attacks instigated by al-Qaida date back to Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. Jihadism looks less like a rising phenomenon in the north of Mali than a force in retreat. The French intervention may well give them purpose and greater coherence."

On 11 January, seemingly out of the blue, François Hollande announced that France would 'respond to the request of the Malian president' and send forces to its former colony to fight 'terrorist elements coming from the north'. 'Today, the very existence of this friendly nation is at stake,' he declared. 'Military operations will last for as long as required … Terrorists must know that France will always be there when it's a matter not of its fundamental interests but the right of a population … to live in freedom and democracy.' In France, though ominous warnings did the rounds, the president's approval ratings soared from a nadir of 40 per cent to 63 per cent.

Hitherto seen as weak, Hollande was suddenly perceived as a strong commander-in-chief (linguistically, it's a small step from chef d'état to chef de guerre). Abroad, despite offers from Western allies of logistical or humanitarian support (France's plea for military support from its European allies remains unanswered), many suspected that neocolonial ghosts were haunting Paris yet again. La Françafrique, that infamous amalgam of truncated African sovereignty and French interventionism in sub-Saharan Africa, seemed to have returned.

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