French military intervention in Africa as a reflection of national preoccupations

The long view of French foreign policy in Africa is paved by conflict of interest. Some government officials are tempted to pull-out of the continent by fear of accusation of neocolonialism, somewhat incompatible with President Hollande’s definition of the Francafrique. Others, looking forward to reelections, are most preoccupied with appeasing national fears of terrorism by keeping a grip on the Sahel — which they hope will secure them votes from an electorate that begs for heightened national security.

This paradox in policy is best witnessed in the asymmetric reactions to recent French intervention in Mali and the Central African Republic. Civil wars in both countries were taking place at the same time, but French media and public opinion reacted differently to both. The first French intervention, in Northern Mali, was answered with praise and appeal for the government, whilst involvement in the Central African Republic was barely covered, if not overlooked by the French domestic audience. How to explain such a stark divide in public opinion for two similar military stints? Unsurprisingly, it was due to the perceived relationship between the global jihad narrative and domestic security issues, and reinforced by public denial of France’s post-colonial responsibility for conflict in Central Africa.

In early 2012, Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, an independentist movement (MNLA), seized strategic cities in Mali’s northern territory before eventually overthrowing the government. In January 2013, the Economic Community of East African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations eventually stepped in, in an effort to counter Tuareg separatist movements. Soon, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and AQIM — all extreme Islamist movements — became the most important players of conflict. French intervention — 4000 troops sent to Mali under Operation Serval — only really started once Ansar Dine took hold of three major strategic points in the northern region: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.[1] However, they had little to do with the earlier separatist movement of the Azawad that initially tipped the country into battle. For a short period, the MNLA and Ansar Dine fought alongside each other against the Malian government. However, they soon clashed over how to govern captured towns.[2] Three years on, Mali is in the process of statebuilding, and despite struggles to reboot the economy, has managed to tame the conflict and focus on growth. Foreign intervention has been deemed a relative success by the French government and domestic audience, international institutions, and many African states.[3]

French paratroopers (3rd RPIMa) and Nigerian soldiers talk in Madama, Niger, November 2014, by Olivier Foique. The French army has expanded Operation Serval into counter-terrorism Operation Barkhane, covering five countries of the Sahel.

Projecting national political priorities onto the international sphere has served as the main tool to legitimise France’s military meddling in Mali. By insisting on the counterterrorist dimension of its involvement, France rapidly won support both from its domestic audience and West African states. By building upon the jihadist narrative, France created a cause that everybody could get behind: protecting Africa from itself by stomping Islamist movements, and synchronically saving Europe for potential terrorist threats.

A few months after France set foot in Mali, Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew the Central African Republic’s Christian President Francois Bozize. Hollande’s international envoys lobbied the United Nations for support on the ground, and eventually sent in 2000 men under operation Sangaris — named after a butterfly of the region, in the hope to match its ephemeral characteristics. As you read this, the conflict is however still ongoing, statebuilding has barely kicked off, and peacekeeping duties are still in the hands of foreign troops.

Legitimising action in the Central African Republic has proved to be more problematic. The civil war, which saw a marginalised muslim minority stand up to the ruling christian majority, did not impact the French public, nor did it surprise it. France’s most recent stint in the Central African Republic was imbued by the disastrous heritage of previously meddling with the country’s national politics. Since it gained independence in 1960, the former Oubangui-Chari region continuously hosted French troops, which intervened ten times in the country’s numerous conflicts.[4] Whereas during the northern Mali conflict, the Islamist threat was publicized and accepted by a French audience that felt directly affected by it, setting foot once again in the CAR was not widely backed either by the French or the Central African population — reflecting upon heavy involvement that never actually helped to stabilise the country.

France’s decades-long relationship with the Central African Republic is one of its most claustrophobic. France is recognised by historians to have backed several coups since the country’s independence. Some were motivated by a need to smooth uranium imports from Bangui, and others were coincidental to the Central African Republic’s increasing connection to China.[5] One could easily argue that the political instability that has plagued the country’s modern history is due to France’s asphyxiating grip on the country’s economic development and political alliances. Even now of the website of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one can read that France “preserved links to the Central African Republic of great density” — an umbrella term which gives a good idea of both countries’ troublesome relationship[6].

Operation Sangaris was the obvious product of an unwillingness to let go of a former colony. French intervention in the Central African Republic was a prime example of the blatantly neocolonial aspect of France’s foreign relations with the continent. Possibly in an attempt to be first in line for future trade, or maybe just to affirm itself as a dominant power, French officials are constantly in and out of Africa with brain and brawn.[7] However, with no interest in discussing colonial wrongs such as ethnic marginalisation and resource exploitation, France’s dialogue with the continent bears little acceptance of what actually fuels conflict in former colonies. Case in point with the former Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s recent comments about colonisation equating with “sharing French culture”.[8] Fundamentally, it is the lack of critical historical understanding, hand in hand with France’s self-promotion as Africa’s biggest ally, which made Operation Sangaris unviable.

A French soldier in Bossangoa, north of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui, January 3, 2014. Andreea Campeanu/REUTERS

On the other hand, French intervention in Mali was deemed a success, and operation Serval recorded as a gold star on France’s tarnished record. Passing the test of public opinion with flying colours is simple: the target, for the first time, is a transnational threat that is unpredictable and threatens Europe. Manuel Valls, current Prime Minister, holds the War against Terror at the centre of his policies as he often repeats that “France is at war against terrorism, jihadism and radical islamism”.[9] The French Ministry of Defense writes that counterterrorism is the nation’s priority in its most recent bulletins. In sum, the threat of transnational jihadism is the best excuse for a neocolonial posture in Africa, stripped of criticism from the public.

The best way to frame the northern Mali conflict was to focus on the impact of Islamic terrorism on the region, and extend the threat to France itself. France only answered Mali’s plea for help once Islamists got involved. The threat of terrorism convinced the French population, and the government faced little opposition from the public. The fight against a narrative that shapes the national politics of most developed nations led to a quick backup by the United Nations Security Council and the European Union.[10]

From an African perspective, and despite a trend of mistrust following Sarkozy’s condescending discourse about the continent, the threat of terrorism was and still is real. The Sahel’s long and porous borders allow for heightened security threats, as demonstrated by the January 2013 In Amenas hostage crisis at the Malian/Algerian border.[11] ECOWAS and the African Union backed France then, and still cooperate across West Africa for operation Barkhane, a continuation of the northern Mali Operation Serval extended to five countries across the Sahel. There is general Sub-Saharan approval of French troops “rescuing” a fragile state like Mali from violent, global threats, therefore little opposition from the continent itself. The narrative of international powers fighting highly organised Islamist terrorist fractions is popular in France. Painting a hyperbolic portrait of sporadic, regionally active rebels as a powerful network of international jihadists is misleading, but used by international powers to justify foreign intervention. [12] For African states, especially in the Sahel, taking the same stance is as popular for national politics, and essential for regional security.[13]

The need to quench domestic fears of global Islamism by staying in the Sahel was a dream come true for Hollande’s unpopular government, which found its highest appeal in promoting counterterrorism. Intervention in Mali was a gold mine for much needed votes, but the positive effects of operation Serval are already fading. By driving out Islamists out of northern Mali, and not actually eliminating them, France only weakened neighbouring states such as Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The consequences of Islamist displacement are unravelling daily — from car bombings to switches in arm trade routes[14] — alongside population displacement.[15]

The Central African Republic is similarly confronted by an incomplete intervention, with little help for state reconstruction. Recent French operations in Africa are limited to the military — they barely cover peacebuilding and statebuilding necessities. While Michael Shurkin from the RAND Corporation, and others, give credit to President Hollande for turning a blind eye to post-intervention duties — claiming that nobody wants a second Afghanistan[16] -, it is hard to ignore the consequences of lack of interest for statebuilding.[17]

More problematically, this sole focus on military operations freed little space for negotiations with other foreign engagement in the midst of conflict. In the Central African Republic, passing on peacekeeping duties from French troops to European troops was a disaster. Barely thought-through and therefore poorly orchestrated, the period of floating responsibility allowed for the highest death toll of locals in 2013.[18]

photo EMA / Armée de Terre

Having extended operation Serval to operation Barkhane, France is now operating 3000 troops in seven African countries in a counterterrorism effort. The international community broadly overlook what they simply consider France’s natural tendency to get caught up in its own power-trip. However, such an extended commitment to the Sahel’s security is worrying given the French army’s aforementioned lack of holism. Besides heavily equipped military bases in and around West Africa — mainly in Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso -, there is little more offered by the French that can ensure peace and security in the region. Post-conflict Mali should expect peacebuilding programmes of unification between the government and separatists, or development aid to connect the northern region to the wealthier South. Instead, France decided to fund operation Barkhane, a track and kill mission to eliminate terrorists. How sustainable is that option? Without stable governments that can cater to their populations, rebel movements will continue to materialise across the Sahel.[19]

Furthermore, by the time European interest in combatting Islamist threats abroad is lost, perhaps due to a change in national security interests, there is little assurance that enough training will have been passed on to local armies for a sustainable future.

It is clear that French national politics still shape Africa’s security landscape. In definite denial of previous commitment to loosen ties to the continent, Hollande’s government has found solace in extending the fight against terrorism outside French borders. As a consequence, intervention in the Central African Republic was brushed under the rug as soon as France realised that operation Sangaris was going downhill. All eyes were set on concurring intervention in Northern Mali, more appealing to Europeans who could recognise Mali’s enemy as their own. Islamists, and all the narratives that surround them, were a perfect target for French troops as they are considered a legitimate target. Comparatively, France’s tenth stint in the Central African Republic was sluggish, and unappealing to a French audience that is all too used to entanglements in former colonies as a habit more than a rightful cause (as opposed to defending France’s national security abroad).[20]

In sum, the threat posed by inter-state terror stemming in Mali resonated deeply with the French domestic audience, whilst the dysfunctional national politics of the Central African Republic were of little interest to the same public, too used to conflict of the like in Africa and its perceived lack of meaning for the average French household. Hence the generalised indifference for the latter conflict, and its poor media coverage.[21]

With May 2017 presidential elections approaching at an alarming pace, the French government is treading a fine line between accusations of neocolonialism and laments of lenient foreign policy, kindled by its recent stints in Mali and the CAR. With the issue of the Islam and Islamism jumble at the core of French politics and likely to play a prominent role in the upcoming elections — especially following the recent terror attacks in Paris and Nice, and recent controversy of the ‘Burkini Ban’ — there is little doubt that the future of French foreign intervention will only tip towards heavier militarisation.

One can only wonder what will happen in Gabon, another former French colony, following recent election-related violence.[22] It is likely that France will once again entangle itself in a conflict that ironically finds its roots in damaging colonial heritage. If Gabon’s instability drags on, the former colonial power will find a reason to intervene — absorbing little from its mistakes in Central Africa.

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[1] Griffin, Christopher. “Operation Barkhane And Boko Haram: French Counterterrorism And Military Cooperation In The Sahel”. Small Wars & Insurgencies 27.5 (2016): 896–913. Web.


[3] Marcus, Jonathan. “French Success In Mali May Herald ‘War Of The Shadows’ — BBC News”. BBC News. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. See also: Lichfield, John, “France Declares Mali Intervention ‘A Success’ But Warns Of Dangerous”. The Independent. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2016; Goldberg, Mark Leon. “France Shows Why It’s Military Is Key To Success Of Mali Peacekeeping Mission | UN Dispatch”. UN Dispatch. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2016; Hofnung, Thomas. “Mali : «Le Succès De L’Intervention Fausse L’Idée De L’État De Nos Forces»”. Libé N.p., 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2016; Merchet, Jean-Dominique. “L’intervention Au Mali, Un Grand Succès Pour La France”. L’Opinion. N.p., 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[4] Schmidt, Elizabeth. Foreign Intervention In Africa — From The Cold War To The War On Terror. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “République Centrafricaine”. France Diplomatie : Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement international. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[7] Charbonneau, Bruno. “The Imperial Legacy Of International Peacebuilding: The Case Of Francophone Africa”. Review of International Studies 40.03 (2014): 607–630. Web.

[8]Gaillard, Barthélémy. “France : Pour François Fillon, La Colonisation S’apparente À Un “Partage De La Culture” — Jeuneafrique.Com”. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[9] “La Lutte Contre Le Terrorisme”. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[10]Goya, Michel. “La Guerre De Trois Mois : L’intervention Française Au Mali En Perspectives”. Politique étrangère Eté.2 (2013): 157. Web.

[11] Dowd, C. and C. Raleigh. “The Myth Of Global Islamic Terrorism And Local Conflict In Mali And The Sahel”. African Affairs 112.448 (2013): 498–509. Web.

[12] Chatham House,. A New Way To Engage? French Policy In Africa From Sarkozy To Hollande. London: Chatham House, 2013. Print.

[13] Welz, M. “Briefing: Crisis In The Central African Republic And The International Response”. African Affairs 113.453 (2014): 601–610. Web.

[14] “Burkina Faso Attack: Foreigners Killed At Luxury Hotel — BBC News”. BBC News. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[15] “Conflicts Displace 3.5 Million People In Africa’s Sahel Region: UN”. ReliefWeb. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[16] Tinti, Peter. “The New French Militarism In The Sahel”. Medium. N.p., 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[17] Marchal, R. “Military (Mis)Adventures In Mali”. African Affairs 112.448 (2013): 486–497. Web.

[18] GSDRC Applied Knowledge Services,. State Fragility In The Central African Republic: What Prompted The 2013 Coup?. Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham, 2013. Print.

[19] European Parliament’s Committee on Development,. Mali: Economic Factors Behind The Crisis. Brussels: European Union Directorate General for External Policies, 2014. Print.

[20] Thomas, Dominic. Africa And France — Postcolonial Cultures, Migration, And Racism.. Indiana University Press, 2013. Print.

[21]Iaccino, Ludovica. “UN: Central African Republic Conflict Is Largest Forgotten Crisis As Aid ‘Dramatically Underfunded’”. International Business Times UK. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

[22]Buchanan, Elsa. “Gabon Elections: What Next Now Jean Ping Has Petitioned Constitutional Court?”. International Business Times UK. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.