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French interests in Mali

Rachel Baig / gswJanuary 16, 2013

France has intervened in Mali in an effort to stop the advance of Islamist rebels - at the request of the government in Bamako and with the UN's blessing. But critics accuse Paris of pursuing a neo-colonialist agenda.

French soldiers walk past a hangar in Mali REUTERS/Joe Penney
Image: Reuters

It's unclear how long France's military campaign in Mali will last, since preventing radical Islamists from taking control of the country requires stabilizing the region for the long term. The Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), a Göttingen-based NGO, has called on France to present a realistic plan for achieving its goals.

"After all, the Islamists will use their old strategy and pull back quickly in order to regroup with the protection of mountains and caves," explained STP spokesperson Ulrich Delius.

Officially, President Francois Hollande's government says that security interests explain its decision to intervene, and Paris insists it wants to act early to prevent the rebels in Western Africa from becoming a danger to Europe.

"France fears that Mali could become a retreat and training center for Islamist terrorists if an Islamist state were established there," said Katrin Sold of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

Furthermore, the former colonial power sees itself as at risk of becoming a target for terrorist attacks. Since 2010, radical Islamists have held four French employees of the Areva energy company captive in Mali. And the terror network al-Qaeda is now threatening further kidnappings and attacks in France and against the approximately 5,000 French citizens living in Mali.

Oil and uranium

However, more is at stake than the risk of terrorist attacks.

"In the long term, France has interests in securing resources in the Sahel - particularly oil and uranium, which the French energy company Areva has been extracting for decades in neighboring Niger," said Sold.

But much time will pass before Mali's resources can be extracted, so Sold believes security interests really are at the forefront in France's current military strike.

Africa expert Delius agrees, noting that when it came to military involvement in Libya, many countries had an interest there, especially in oil. With Mali, he said, it's different, and Paris seems to be following a concrete set of goals.

But sending troops to Mali represents a tightrope walk for France. The country may be out to defend its political and security interests, but there's a danger of seeming neo-colonialist. However, France is sticking to the demands of a UN mandate passed in December 2012.

"There is a defense agreement between France and Mali that was written for exactly such cases," stressed Alexander Stroh, a researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

As such, France could be said to be simply fulfilling its obligations to Mali's government by preventing the rebel groups from marching on the capital.

Installations of drills at Cominak underground uranium mine in Arlit in the Air desert (c) Getty Images
Neighbor Niger is a source of uranium for FranceImage: Getty Images
France's president Francois Hollande speaking at a podium (AP Photos/ Lionel Bonaventure, Pool)
Hollande must balance domestic promises with his support for MaliImage: AP

Contradictory policies

French President Francois Hollande must keep an eye on promises made domestically, as well. During his election campaign in 2012, he promised to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and bring soldiers home. Now he may suffer a loss of credibility by sending French armed forces to Africa.

The difficult budget situation at home presents further complications, especially for a prolonged engagement in Mali. In order to push through his economic consolidation agenda, there's little room for costly foreign policy maneuvers.

France does not want to operate alone in Mali and has urged a multilateral intervention in which African troops are sent to the front. The UN Security Council has already approved the military intervention, and the EU has promised to train Malian soldiers. Those are both important points for Paris because they signal shared responsibility within Europe and support from Brussels.