from Africa in Transition

Mali Intervention Becoming a Partisan Issue in France?

March 08, 2013

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French former president Nicolas Sarkozy criticized the French intervention in Mali in a March 6 magazine interview. He is quoted as saying, “the rule is never to go into a country that has no government,” and, “What are we doing there if we’re not just supporting putschists and trying to control a territory four times larger than France with four thousand men?”

Sarkozy’s comments highlight the awkward reality that French intervention was at the request of the Bamako regime that had overthrown the legal government. He is also likely to continue to make partisan political statements the longer the French stay in Mali and the intervention inevitably becomes unpopular in France. That process will accelerate if French casualties mount. Thus far, however, only four French soldiers have been killed. Times change:  Sarkozy is a politician of the French Right, which historically has supported a French forward role in its former colonies. It is the Left, now led by Francois Hollande, the French president, that was skeptical in the past.

From the start, French president Francois Hollande has said the intervention would be short and that French troops would be replaced by a UN-approved African regional force. On March 6 Hollande said French troops would start to leave Mali in April, a month later than initially foreseen. He characterized this as the “final phase” as African troops take over.

It remains to be seen whether the African regional force will be ready to take over from the French as soon as April. Fighting, sometimes fierce, continues, and the Islamists appear far from defeated in the desert. But, Hollande will be aware of the domestic political costs he may face if the French intervention drags on.