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Same players, different ties: France's delicate role in Mali

For Malians, the French-led intervention has been an emotional roller-coaster. At times critical of their former colonizer in the past, many are now cheering French troops.

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Yet France has remained the most influential Western power in West Africa, intervening dozens of times in the past half-century in the affairs of former colonies and sometimes protecting dictators in a cozy arrangement known as Françafrique.

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Now French President François Hollande, elected last May, says France wants to turn a page.

“The time of Françafrique is over,” he said last October, addressing African leaders gathered in Dakar, Senegal. “There is France and there is Africa. There is a partnership between France and Africa, with relations founded on respect, clarity, and solidarity.”

A reluctant France jumps in

In similar vein, France initially ruled out sending troops to Mali to help dislodge Islamist fighters from the north. But a lightning Islamist advance two weeks ago appears to have raised the sudden danger of Mali’s collapse.

Konna, the target of the Islamist advance, is near the main road leading into Mali’s north, as well as a key army base at the town of Sévaré. The last serious military setback – in March of last year – triggered a military coup d’état.  

According to French officials, France responded to an urgent cry for help from Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traouré. Within days, French planes were pounding Islamists with air strikes, while French soldiers landed at Bamako.

Malians turned out to greet them, as French flags became a hot commodity. Yet the French-led campaign risks killing or injuring civilians by mistake, with a potential loss of both lives and popularity. It’s also unclear how long French troops might stay – and when they might wear out their welcome.

Paris says it wants to hand off to West African troops, as originally planned by Western and African governments last year. But France has also vowed to stay in Mali until the Islamists are beaten and stability restored.

That could mean seeing Mali through presidential elections that were derailed by last year’s coup. For now, the army and an interim government are coupled in a shaky balance of power.

A French presence through elections might help, says Moussa Mara, an accountant and district mayor in Bamako who plans to run for president, and heads Yelema, or “Change,” party.

“It’s not desirable that the international community gets involved in Mali’s internal political dialogue,” he says. “But foreign troops that stay could take care of security and fight against terrorism.”

Humanism, not colonialism

Across the Niger River from the government ministries, party offices, and seats of power, in Bamako’s vast southern sprawl of poor neighborhoods, a social worker of sorts named Mamadou Touré views Mali’s foreign relations from a different angle: “Humans helping humans, and the rich helping the poor,” he says.

Help came to Mr. Touré in 2000 in the form of Marie-Ange Buclet and her husband, Bruno Ughetto, a couple from Paris who had decided to adopt a child from Mali.

In Bamako, they befriended Touré, who worked with street children. The next year the three set up Sinjiya-ton, a Franco-Malian charity. One night in 2005, Buclet accompanied Touré for the first time on his nightly rounds.

“Even the most drugged-up children respected him,” she says. “He played football with them. He listened. One imagines a world of violence, and it is, but with Mamadou it was completely transformed.”

After that, Sinjiya-ton opened Dalibougou, a home in Bamako for street children. Mr. Ughetto, a management consultant, handles the finances, while Touré runs the home. Buclet and Ughetto normally visit twice a year.

“We were working before, but couldn’t have reached this level without foreign help – in particular French help,” says Touré. “But today, if someone helps me, it’s not as a colonizer. It’s because, behind everything, there are human beings.”

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