France in Mali… le bordel, quoi!

Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, President François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. As has happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question ‘which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops?’ now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of there being 3000 men in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information.

The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful either. He speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an Islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French Islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’état, and what kind of Islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the Northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger triangle are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity for supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria sits well with such a strategy of using the French military to secure access to mineral resources. As the past has shown, these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”.

Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and with Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortunate enough to vote for the FIS (Front Islamique de Salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with the French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible Islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian Harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared enemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The Islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons for this intervention and it is the reason French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put forward in an interview with French radio station Europe 1. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “Islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, these Islamists are all Salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes so far as to simply deny that radical Islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion that exists once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called Islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Libyan war, some are apparently coming from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes clear their internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to economic interests in the region and to the people living in their way, even with the claim of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s The Dark Sahara, Belmokhtar was in the past rather more involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam, although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the saturation of Islam as a political system but Ansar Dine, which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information is available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armament, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question of whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (Mouvement pour la Liberation Nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just recently the MLNA announced that it would fight back the “Islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge, the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect “good relations” with France. This is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all, and that will probably soon be too much. Just as with other operations of this kind, France is actually risking making the situation more complicated and risks engaging in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.

Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments; it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population, making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) difficult, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region; it is reinforcing fears of Islamist terrorism in France and in Europe, hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intensifying Islamophobia in France; it is intensifying the guerrilla tactics of those armed groups, hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation; and, if Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War is to be believed, creating more situations of brutal exaction as uncertainty in the population’s loyalty is increasing. As one common consequence of most asymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, the French government is also pushing even more the war in the shadows. In short, it will be creating a much bigger mess than it can fix.

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.