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French soldiers listen as Malian President Dioncounda Traore speaks at a Malian air base in Bamako, Mali January 16, 2013. French troops launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a broadening of their operation against battle-hardened al Qaeda-linked fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes.

JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

"Death is nothing," Napoleon once observed. "But to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily."

Easy for the emperor to have said – he conquered much of Continental Europe. Since then, France has suffered its share of military defeats. And glory, once so easily won, has sometimes proved elusive.

Yet France's pride in its own military valour has never wavered. And today, the world is watching Mali, the impoverished African country to which Paris suddenly dispatched hundreds of soldiers last week.

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The hopes is to beat back the surging jihadist forces who threaten to overrun the former colony. French leaders say they will either "destroy" the terrorists or stay just long enough for West African soldiers to coalesce into a fighting force that can do the job.

Time will tell. What is clear is that, for now, the move is popular in France, which still sees swaths of Africa as inside its sphere of influence.

"The French are intensely, fiercely, full of pride," says Michael Leggiere, a French military historian at the University of North Texas. "The fact that they are going at it unilaterally just speaks volumes about how they perceive themselves and their military and their role in the world."

He adds: "I see it as an opportunity for them to erase the memory of some of the mistakes that they made."

Among the troops dispatched to Mali are the Foreign Legionnaires, the renegades who arrive in France from all corners of the globe in hope of finding glory by fighting (or dying) in some strange corner of the world.

The French Foreign Legion promises only austerity; those who join it are "really gung ho, a little macho. They like the guns, they like the adventure," Prof. Leggiere says.

Created as a vanguard for France's colonization efforts in 1831, the Legion was made to be a fighting force for a country on the march.

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By the early 20th century, France had its hands full just trying to fend off invaders. It lost a million soldiers to the Germans in the First World War. During the Second World War, the Germans did an end run around the Maginot Line, capturing Paris in a matter of a few weeks in 1940.

After the Allies reclaimed France, it suffered more humiliations by losing battles for colonies such as Algeria and Indochina.

Like most NATO member states, France has spent the past decade trying to keep the Taliban from regaining Afghanistan – a politically divisive foreign war that France and others are now pulling out of.

Yet its military remains one the world's largest, best-equipped and most sophisticated forces, one well acquainted with operations in Africa. About 3,500 military personnel are garrisoned at bases in Senegal, Gabon and Djibouti. And there are still more French troops in Chad, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.

For France, the conflict centred in Mali is considered a homeland problem, given that the radical Islamist fighters based in the Sahara often go out of their way to target or threaten France and its citizens.

In going to Mali, the French felt compelled to step into a breach that no other country would fill.

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With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

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