On a cold evening in a Parisian suburb known as Little Bamako, Omar Kamara puts down a cup of hot tea and gives a wide smile when the subject of France’s military intervention in Mali comes up.
Mr. Kamara is sitting with a group of friends in the courtyard of Foyer Bara, a hostel for immigrant workers in the Paris suburb of Montreuil. He came to Montreuil 11 years ago from Mali, joining as many as 10,000 of his countrymen who live in this area named after the capital. But rather than griping about French interference in his homeland, which has been the case in the past, Mr. Kamara and his friends are praising what their adopted government has done.
“France had to do something,” Mr. Kamara said as the man beside him gave a thumbs up. France had to take on the terrorists, he added. “We are all Muslims. But we don’t kidnap people and ask for money. These people had to be stopped.”
France has always had a complicated relationship with Mali and other countries in West Africa. Years of pillaging the resources led to decades of colonial rule and still more intervention after these nations won independence in the 1960s. But the relationship persisted and France remained deeply entwined with its former colonies, maintaining a military presence and relying on this region for nearly all of the uranium that fuels French nuclear power plants.
So when the threat of terrorism, in the form of al-Qaeda-backed rebels, took over much of Mali and moved south toward Bamako, French President François Hollande felt he could not sit still. He sent in French troops, helicopters and fighter jets ostensibly to push back the rebel advance but also to help rebuild Mali’s shattered government, still reeling from a military coup last year and now facing possible overthrow by jihadists.
This isn’t a Gaulliste adventure by a former colonial power. This is a military action by an unpopular Socialist president who has spent months avoiding direct engagement in Mali, preferring other African countries to take on the task. But when rebels came within a few hundred kilometres of Bamako last week, Mr. Hollande turned hawkish. “We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence. France cannot accept this,” Mr. Hollande said in announcing the military intervention.
The French are backing him up. Polls show more than 60 per cent of people support the military action and Mr. Hollande’s approval ratings have shot up 17 points overnight.
“I don’t think you will see protesting in the streets,” said Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos, an expert on African conflicts at the Paris-based Institut de Recherche pour le Développement. “The war has shown [Mr. Hollande] as a leader.”
Added Charles Reznik, the deputy mayor of Montreuil: “Everyone was very scared when the Islamists started going toward Bamako. When you [come] across Malians in Montreuil, the first thing they say is that ‘These people are not with us. This is not our Islam. They are thugs and murderers.’”
Even after announcing the surprise military action, Mr. Hollande has raised more eyebrows by going farther than many expected. On Friday, French military officials said the country had sent 1,800 troops to Mali and the number could rise to 2,500, far more than the 550 Mr. Hollande initially dispatched. The soldiers have been accompanied by 12 fighter jets which have flown 110 missions so far. French officials insist the troops will be there as long as it takes for the country to stabilize, no longer talking in terms of days or weeks as they did last week.
Many say Mr. Hollande can get away with all this because he has tapped into France’s emotional links to West Africa. There is still an almost romantic connection between France and countries like Mali, Niger and even Algeria, all former French colonies. Many French people regularly vacation in West Africa; and Niger, next door to Mali, is home to massive uranium mines that fuel France’s extensive network of nuclear-power plants. So many French citizens live and work all over West Africa that France’s Foreign Affairs ministry cannot even give an estimate on the number. France’s involvement in Africa has gone further, playing a lead role in leading the attacks to unseat the Gadhafi regime in Libya and conducting intelligence work in war-torn Somalia. But West Africa remains special.
“This is Francophone Africa,” added Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs. “We know the ground. We know the people. We’ve been there before, we were a colonial force. There is economic interest in uranium. But at the end of the day, it’s not what we wanted [Mali] to be, it’s what we didn’t want it to become.”
There are other factors at play as well. The U.S. had largely given up on West Africa and the Europeans seemed even less interested in intervention.
For now Mr. Hollande’s efforts are paying off. French and Malian troops have retaken two cities that had been under rebel control. An African force is being mobilized and trained faster than expected.
But there could be worrying signs ahead. France remains in recession and can ill afford a costly military action, especially when the budget for the military has been cut sharply in recent years. And public attitudes could change quickly if al-Qaeda launches terrorist attacks in France, as promised. Those same polls showing support for the mission also indicate that 51 per cent believe the military intervention has increased the chances of a terrorist attack.
Editor's note: The Tuaregs in West Africa have not joined with the Islamist rebels. Incorrect information in an earlier version of this article has been removed.