África & Oriente Médio

Unraveling the French intervention in Mali: the bigger picture, by Mariana Kalil

“We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.”– Albert Camus, The Rebel, Part 5, “Moderation and Excess”, 1951

 In his recent contribution to Mundorama.net, Pio Penna Filho pinpointed the reasons for France to get involved in Mali. In a rather straightforward manner, Penna Filho’s perspective encompassed Mali’s past as a French colony and France’s continuous military presence in the region to guarantee perennial areas of influence not only politically, but also economically, Hollande’s Hegelian and partisan motivations to casuistically deploy forces abroad, as well as the role of Jihadism in a war on terror that allegedly entered Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Paris’ role as a great power would stem from its capacity to uphold hegemony in French-speaking nations in Africa, which would have previously motivated former leaders to engage in spurious relations. The Rwanda sin would also spark France to intervene in the continent.

The author places France’s decision to enter Mali mostly in the European country’s traditions and considerations regarding the African continent. While the Africanist Pio Penna falls short of framing the French assessment to Mali in the broader picture, other analysts fail to place matters of the immediate context in the bigger picture. This article aims at merging and overcoming these strands of thought in order to provide the reader with variables that may have structurally entailed France’s boots on the ground in Mali, while halting Paris from engaging in similar circumstances in the Central African Republic.

A clear-cut approach to the issue identifies two facets of France’s decision to interfere in Mali: the French foreign policy to former colonies in Africa; the French diplomacy as a permanent member of the Security Council and an active collaborator to NATO.  When it comes to the first arena, the French-African relations have followed a pattern in which France offers aid, namely through the OECD and its conditionalities, while adopting a solidary narrative of promoting development. Especially during Chirac’s administration, France entered alliances to increase investments in Africa to help fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals, whilst participating in several initiatives to boost social figures in the continent, such as the Global Drug Facility. At a glance, France might seem true to its solidary intentions in the African continent, in spite of the colonial past and the permanence of military forces in the region. Nonetheless, the concomitant exploitation of natural resources, alongside with a selective policy to humanitarian interventions have made it clear that the road to hell may indeed be usually paved with good intentions.

The aim of maximizing economic gains, in spite of local income inequalities or environmental damage, is not a trace restricted to France’s relations with the African continent. These dynamics surpass considerations of State-State rapports and enter the arena of how the State and its diplomatic agents can exercise control over their citizens’ actions in foreign territory, as well as to which extent those activities reflect the State’s positions or intended neglect. Notwithstanding, the French friendship with African dictators approximate the country’s thirsty-to-profit-entrepreneurs to France’s identity, especially due to Paris’ past as the metropolis. A cautious analyst could still avoid blaming France of scrambling for Africa through other means, since there seems to be other facets of the country’s foreign policy that believe in the promotion of development in the continent and the States themselves seem to be reaching out for help, but legitimizing the French position becomes harder when the bigger picture is taken into account.

When Penna Filho depicts the importance of Jihadism to France’s course of action, the author does not completely neglect the broader scenario of France’s diplomacy. Nonetheless, matters of International Security were more relevant to France than the author managed to highlight. In their turn, foreign analysts, as Wing and Elischer, focus utterly on conjunctural issues, leaving by the wayside the French inclination to participate in imbroglios in that region, the aspects of sustainable development essential to problems of security in failed States or in countries that face fragile contexts and Paris’ constant flirtation with power politics.

Thus, a holistic grasp of France’s intervention underlines also the second facet of the French foreign policy: its role in the SCUN and in NATO. Paris’ emphasis on humanitarian and development issues do not usually spread over its entire foreign policy agenda. Unlike countries that intend to restrain the whims of power politics via rules that carry the urgency of development, France’s diplomacy offers grounds for those who conceive rules and good intentions as instrumental means for rational States to achieve other goals. This has managed to deviate the primary meaning of the concept of Human Security and the responsibility to protect, while submitting them to the traditional logics of power politics in the most realist terms. Hence, France’s intervention in Mali would result also from Paris’ take on the role of Westphalia’s principles of non intervention and sovereignty in the face of major disrespects to human rights or the national State’s inability to maintain order and peace within its own territory. The French participation in NATO and in the SCNU has proven that, in spite of Paris’ opposition to the invasion of Iraq and a few other impulses of autonomy, the country is deeply entrenched in the traditional dynamics of the use of force in which selectivity fits like a glove.

 Therefore, France’s roles as the former metropolis that intends to maintain a sphere of influence, as the economy that plans to generate profits or as the country that understands the importance of development to a sustainable peace in Africa would represent mere traces of the country’s structural position in the International System. To a nation that is undergoing financial trouble and has long lost its world-wide soft power, belonging to such cliques as NATO and the SCNU means emulating past behaviors that fuel the logics that legitimate Paris’ current status. When France decides not to engage in the Central African Republic, in spite of its adamant position towards Mali, Paris makes itself needed. By echoing the voices of those who fear the spread of Jihadism and terrorism in Africa as a threat to world peace, France underpins the apparent general necessity of powerful leaders that would be willing to take risks and promote peace. Consequently, constructive approaches that intend to prevent crises fall short of utility in the French strategy and the country’s approach to development resembles the generosity of those who deem themselves better and who may sometimes bend to the needs of the many, but only to the extent that their own status remains safe.

The 2008 financial crisis has allowed the world to see upon whom they actually depend and who indeed possesses potential and status. In its turn, the Arab Spring has unleashed the dogs of political and ethnic instability in Africa. Bush’s utterly binomial rhetoric of the good and the evil, although frequently despised by most of the P5, seems to have stocked, since it serves well to provide narratives with reasons to renovate themselves.


PENNA FILHO, P. (2013). Jihadismo e a intervenção francesa no Mali. Mundorama.net. <http://mundorama.net/2013/01/22/jihadismo-e-intervencao-francesa-no-mali-por-pio-penna-filho/> Accessed in February 2nd, 2013.

ELISCHER, S. (2013). After Mali comes Niger. Foreign Affairs, February 12, 2013. <http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138931/sebastian-elischer/after-mali-comes-niger> Accessed in February 23rd, 2013.

WING, S. (2013). Making sense of Mali: the real stakes of the war rocking West Africa. Foreign Affairs, January 20, 2013.

< http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138767/susanna-wing/making-sense-of-mali>  Accessed in February 23, 2013.

Mariana Kalil is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Strategic Studies of the Universidade Federal Fluminense – INEST/UFF, a Researcher at GAPCon/EPAZ, the Executive Coordinator of the Executive Commission for the Sergio Vieira de Mello School, MA in Comparative and International Politics by the University of Brasilia – IRel/UnB and BA in International Relations by the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro – IRI/PUC-Rio (marianakalil@gmail.com). 

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