France and Mali: An 'ironic' relationship

French troops in Mali

The French President Francois Hollande has this week sent more soldiers into Mali, despite his previous promise to downsize their military presence there. The situation reflects France's complex with the West African country.

For as long as I have been covering French news, which is more than 20 years now, there has been a constant refrain that it is time to move away from the old idea of what they call here La Francafrique.

La Francafrique was the network of interests that France left behind in Africa when it pulled out as a colonial power.

At its best, it was a benign attempt to extend the benefits of trade and development, and keep French-speaking Africa part of France's cultural sphere.

At its worst, it was a rotten system that served established interests - in France as well as in African states - with, at its heart, a devil's bargain: you stay tame and send us your minerals, and when we need it, under-the-counter cash. In return, from time-to-time, we will send in French troops to save your presidential mightiness from the mob.

As I said, for the last 20 years it has been the cry of every government that this system was immoral and outdated and had to come to an end.

Jacques Chirac was a dyed-in-the-wool Gaullist, and La Francafrique was in its essence a Gaullist enterprise, but even Chirac paid lip-service to the notion that times had changed.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, a would-be iconoclast, went further and explicitly set out to rewrite the contract. He started scaling back French troop contingents in Africa, and in a famous speech gave deep offence on the continent, when he basically said it was time Africans started doing things for themselves.

Sarkozy being Sarkozy, the message came out all wrong and tactless - but the direction of his thought was sound: that the old cosy contacts with France were holding Africa back.

Image caption Hollande promised to downsize France's presence in Mali but has this week sent in more troops

And now we have Francois Hollande, who as a good socialist has drunk deeply of the anti-colonialist potion and genuinely feels embarrassed about much of France's past involvement on the continent.

Only a couple of weeks ago he was in Algeria and actually got applauded by the Algerian parliament for coming as close as any French leader ever has to saying sorry for taking the place over in 1830.

So yes, now we have a socialist leader, a man who has promised to keep downsizing the military commitment in Africa. A man who has made it a point of honour that France will not any more be regarded as the gendarme of Africa, as it was for so many years.

And what is he doing, this harbinger of change, this paragon of post-colonial international egalite?

What he has been doing this week is sending soldiers back in to Africa. To do what? To help a not-especially-democratic regime in Mali.

Single-handedly (because yes, allies from West Africa are going to help, but let us be honest, they are not there yet and even when they are, who knows if they will be any good?) taking on an Islamist rebel army in territories once occupied by romantic white-kepied officers from the Foreign Legion operating out of Beau Geste mud-brick fortresses.

I am afraid, though he will hate to admit it, very much being once again the policeman (or - why not? - the gendarme) of this benighted, impoverished corner of the world.

And the kicker of the tale is that throughout the momentous events of the last few days with France in effect walking back into its former backyard - the one it gave back to its rightful owners 50 years ago - no-one has said: "This is neo-colonialism in the garb of the politically-acceptable." No-one has said: "You French, any excuse and you are back in your old haunts, protecting your special friends."

As far as I can see, just about everyone is behind the French on this one: the Americans, the Europeans, the Africans, even the Algerians.

Image caption The French colonised Mali, which was then known as French Sudan, in the late 19th Century

Of course, none of them is actually doing very much - with the honourable exception of the UK and its C17 transport plane that broke down on day one.

But they are all cheering France on from the sidelines, and broadly saying: "Thank goodness one of us still has forces pre-positioned in Africa and a good knowledge of the terrain... and the experience and the backbone to put one in the eye for Aqmi, Mujao, Ansar Dine and the rest of the Sahel's Islamo-narco-terrorists."

All of which simply goes to show that history is full of ironies.

Where a few years ago the notion of France sending in troops to fight a war in a former colony would have provoked howls of contempt - not least from the French Left - today with the rise of Islamism and the threat we all face, the rules have been re-written.

For honourable reasons, modern France wants to get away from La Francafrique. For honourable reasons, modern France finds itself going back in.

The world has changed.

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