French flags selling out in Mali's capital

France's military intervention has been widely greeted here. Normally, Malian attitudes towards its former colonial ruler range from resentment to admiration.

Joe Penney/Reuters
Yacouba Konate wears a French flag to show his support for the French military intervention in Mali in the Malian capital of Bamako last Sunday. After France launched a bombing campaign against Islamist rebels in central and northern Mali last week, French flags bloomed around Bamako almost instantaneously.

War and nationalist sentiment usually go hand in hand. The week-old war in Mali is no exception. As the war drums beat hotter in this landlocked former French colony in West Africa, nationalism is also on the rise. 

But in this case, it is French nationalism that is rising.

Normally, Malian attitudes towards France, which once ruled the country as a colony, range from resentment to admiration. But when France launched a bombing campaign against Islamist rebels in central and northern Mali last week, French flags bloomed around the capital Bamako almost instantaneously. 

Flags are waved on the street, show up on cars, motorcycles, appear in windows. Vive la France!

What might be called a panoply of pro-France merchandise is found everywhere, offering insight both into a quick shift in Malian attitudes toward France, and into the workings of Bamako’s street markets.  

Moreover, the flags, like so much merchandise around the world, do not come from France – but are made, shipped, stocked and marketed through the larger Chinese vendors in Bamako.

Information about the new commodity of French flags begins downtown at the “Place d’Indépendance.” At this square, teenage boys work in groups to sell the French tricolor in the shadow of a monument to honor Mali’s independence from colonial rule. No one seems to notice the irony.

One young man, Cheickounah Koné, usually sells toys, battery-powered fly swatters, and odds and ends for about $5 a day, mostly to drivers stuck in traffic.

But two days after French jets began operations, a demand for flags made him change his product. He sells small flags on a staff with a suction cup on the end, that now adorn motor-scooters. Taxi drivers buy full-sized French flags and cover their rear windows with them.

For the last few days Mr. Kone has picked up some $25 a day in patriotic war spoils.

“Vive la France!” says one smiling customer who forks over $2 for the French colors.

Kone’s flag stash comes from a large chaotic market called “Sugu ba,” an intense zone of capitalism in this capital, where French paraphernalia is discovered finally at “Chez les Chinois,” on the edge of the market.

Rows of Chinese-owned stores sell an array of goods, ranging from plastics to electronics.

In the first shop the owner says she ran out of flags days ago, that boxes of French flags that sat on the floor for years, were now gone. But more are coming from her homeland, China, she asserts.

Along the row, nearly every shop was sold out of French goods, most in the last few days.

As I field a phone call in the halls of the House of China, my Malian guides discover with some disappointment that I am an American, not a Frenchman.

But they quickly recover: “No, no, no... it’s ok, it’s ok,” one guide, Moussa says in strained English. “Obama is still good, but [French President] Hollande saved us, he saved Mali.” 

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