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.

Jerome Delay/AP
A French soldier secures a perimeter on the outskirts of Diabaly, Mali, some 320 miles north of the capital Bamako Monday Jan. 21. French and Malian troops were in the city whose capture by radical Islamists prompted the French military intervention.

The first casualty named in the two-week old fight to liberate northern Mali from Islamists militants was a Frenchman. Damien Boiteux, a lieutenant, was reported killed while flying his helicopter into battle near the city of Konna.

For Younouss Dicko, a Malian political party leader, the story of Lt. Boiteux inspires a mix of sorrow, gratitude – and a certain watchfulness.

“It’s valorous of France to come aid Mali,” he says. “But the French know there are limits. I think that with friendship and brotherhood, they won’t stay longer than necessary or interfere too much in our internal affairs.”

France never sought this battle. After decades of meddling in Africa, it says it wants former colonies to look after themselves. For Malians, 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.

The drama is playing out against a backdrop of colonial history and human ties that still link French and Malian society – sometimes complicated by old wounds, sometimes transcending them. For now, smiles abound. But a misstep by Paris could swiftly sour things.

“There’s never been a moment in French-Malian relations when people have supported France this much,” says Gregory Mann, an associate history professor and Mali specialist at Columbia University in New York.  “But France could make just one or two mistakes, and lose goodwill quickly.”

French Sudan

France first came to Mali amid the 19th -century Scramble for Africa, as European powers gobbled up the continent in a race to build empires and extract resources. By mid-century, French colonialists in Senegal were eyeing the territory that would eventually become modern Mali.

In the words of Louis Faidherbe, a colonial administrator and an architect of France’s African empire, writing in 1863, “if…you use the Senegal River to gain a route to the Sudan and the banks of the Niger, you will create a French colony that will count among the most beautiful in the world.”

It was in that colony, called French Sudan but is present-day Mali, that Mr. Dicko grew up. His family lived in Zaman, a town east of Timbuktu, and as a boy he was sent to the French school in nearby city of Gourma Rharous. In what he regards as a tactful nod to local sensibilities, French authorities brought in Quranic scholars to provide Islamic study.

Dicko earned a doctorate at the University of Montpellier, in France, and taught quantum mechanics at the University of Bamako. Today he heads the Rally for Development and Solidarity party, as well as COPAM, a coalition of parties and other groups critical of Mali’s current government.

“I don’t have any personal grievances from colonization, save that it’s a form of subjugation,” he says. “Even if you don’t register a precise act against you, you know that you have a master. You have a boss. And that hurts.”

Poor, but free

After the Second World War, an exhausted France began shedding colonies. With some exceptions – notably Algeria, which France fought a bloody and unsuccessful war to retain – French Africa was disassembled in orderly fashion. Mali gained independence in 1960.

One day in 1972, Dicko went home on vacation from teaching in Bamako, and overheard a group of men debating the merits of independence. Some said Mali had become a poorer, hungrier place under its strongman presidents, Modibo Keita and Moussa Traouré.

“Then one of the men leapt up and said, ‘You like slavery? Me, today I’m hungry and poor, but I’m free’,” recalls Dicko.

Between them, Mr. Keita and Mr. Traouré – who toppled his predecessor – ran Mali until 1991, when Traouré was himself overthrown in a coup that established democracy and free elections. Along the way, the country has tended to forge an independent path from its former colonizer.

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.

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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