French intervention in Mali a high-stakes decision for Hollande

Updated On: Jan 16, 2013

"The French military intervention in Mali which began Friday 10 January is a high-stakes decision, the biggest foreign policy decision taken by President François Hollande since his inauguration in mid-2012," says Dr. Reuben Wong from the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, and a Council Member of the SIIA.

Altogether, hundreds of French soldiers are already on the ground, and reports say the number may swell to 3000. French forces plan to leave Mali as soon as possible, but observers suggest this will not be a short-term campaign. However, there is notably widespread domestic support for the intervention in France.

"Domestically, near-universal support across the political spectrum for the French intervention accepts the action as necessary to stop Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, already entrenched in the north, from capturing the capital Bamako, and exporting terror to France and other Western countries," explains Dr. Wong.

"In France, the only major criticisms of the intervention were by former PM Domique de Villepin, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the far-left. They felt that the French state was acting unilaterally and beyond a UN-mandated plan."

France says its intervention in Mali is covered by a December UN Security Council resolution that authorized military intervention by the African Union. Nigerian soldiers are also arriving in Mali this week, and five other African countries have pledged to send troops.

According to Dr. Wong, the situation on the ground is complex and challenging for France.

"Like the Franco-British intervention in Libya, the success of Operation Serval will depend not only on material and logistics support from friendly and neighbouring countries - including the UK, US, west African states and even Algeria for airplane overflight and refuelling - but also diplomatic support from ECOWAS, the EU and the UN, and local support from the populations affected."

"There are about 6000 French citizens in Mali and 30,000 French people in the Sahel, the French-speaking Africa south of the Sahara. Several French civilians have been taken hostage by religious extremist groups in the past few months. These soft targets, and strategic installations in France itself, are at risk of violent reprisals if the French attempt to suppoprt the Malian government against the takeover of the country by Islamic extremist, goes badly wrong."

"France needs the UN-mandated ECOWAS intervention force to organise quickly so that the intervention can develop into a more international, broad-based effort at stemming extremist forces from turning Mali - a country almost twice the size of France - into a failed state and base for terrorist groups.