France’s Forgotten War

Mali is old news in Paris. Now it’s all gay marriage all the time.


Created in the image of Charles de Gaulle, the institutions and ideals of France’s Fifth Republic were tailored for greatness. "France cannot be France without grandeur," the late general once famously declared — and grandeur could only be grand on the world stage. But if the world was de Gaulle’s stage, his audience was decidedly French: Greatness abroad, he believed, would unify his notoriously quarrelsome subjects at home.

The Gaullist imperative to think locally but act globally left a deep mark on subsequent French presidents: Whether conservative, liberal or socialist, they have all been Gaullists when it comes to matters abroad. This insistence on the so-called French exception in the realm of foreign affairs, while often a source of irritation to France’s allies, has been an ideal to which the country’s public, as well as its political and intellectual classes, have long rallied.

The election last year of President François Hollande, however, was supposed to herald something very different. Having campaigned primarily on domestic economic issues — his Socialist Party’s mantra was "C’est l’économie, pauvre con!" ("It’s the economy, stupid!") — Hollande scarcely mentioned foreign affairs. But something funny happened on the way to France’s intervention in Mali in January. In launching an offensive to rout jihadists from the north of the former French colony, Hollande was transformed, like his former mentor François Mitterrand, into an accidental Gaullist. Now, three months after the first French troops arrived in Bamako, France has all but forgotten about its African exploits — the news that a sixth French soldier died this week in Mali scarcely created a ripple in the French media — though, as the recent bombing of the French Embassy in Tripoli suggests, Africa hasn’t forgotten about France.

While the rapidity of the president’s decision to intervene in Mali surprised the political and intellectual classes — Hollande, nicknamed Flamby after a custard-like dessert, was hardly known for his resolve — they immediately closed ranks behind him. Public opinion followed, as did France’s intellectuals. While few were as gung-ho as Bernard Henri-Lévy, who had earlier led the charge for France’s intervention in Libya, most agreed with the French daily Le Monde‘s verdict that Hollande’s decision was "le choix de moindre mal," the lesser evil.

Still, there were those who expressed doubts. Most of the dissenters hailed from the extreme left and, in particular, the Green Party and the Parti de Gauche. Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for example, hinted that Hollande was really after uranium deposits in neighboring Niger, while Green Party leader Noel Mamère dismissed the government’s reasons for intervention as "propaganda." Even the flamboyant Gaullist Dominique de Villepin, who served as France’s prime minister from 2005-2007, warned that Hollande, ignorant of past and present geopolitical realities, was leading France into another Afghanistan.

The timing of Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali has also attracted the attention of some members of France’s chattering class. The philosopher Michel Onfray, for example, mocked Hollande’s "pursuit of sandal-wearing Malians while France rolls out the red carpet to states that are buying up our bankrupt country piece by piece." Hollande and his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, had been in freefall in public opinion polls since the fall of 2012. Confronted by a stalling economy and spiraling unemployment — much of which, to be fair, could be laid at the feet of former President Nicolas Sarkozy — Hollande appeared increasingly helpless and hapless. One after another, his campaign promises, from the pledge to keep open the Mittal steel plant in the northern city Florange to the vow to soften the monetary and budgetary dictates of Berlin and Brussels, withered into dead letters. Tellingly, just two weeks after the Mali operation was launched, nearly 90 percent of the French told pollsters that France "needed a true leader to reestablish order." (Perhaps no less tellingly, the pollsters did not ask whether they were thinking of order at home or order abroad.)

Three months later, France is still, even frantically, seeking a true leader. Gaullist grandeur, it turns out, is not among Mali’s natural resources. In last week’s public opinion polls, foreign policy — by which most everyone understands Mali — was the one category where at least 50 percent of the respondents gave Hollande a passing grade. This rather anemic support, however, did not bleed into other categories. The bottom line was, in fact, catastrophic: Scarcely one quarter of the French is satisfied with Hollande. Never before has a French president fallen so fast in the eyes of so many in so short a time.

Even France’s early rout of Islamist rebels in northern Mali has failed to slow Hollande’s descent into the netherworld of public disenchantment. The intervention borders on a Zen koan: If a military operation realizes its aims, but no one is paying attention, is it successful? French military action in Africa has, for the French, all the novelty of a spring rain in Paris. Since 1958 and the creation of the Fifth Republic, Gaullist, liberal, and Socialist presidents alike have sent soldiers and planes to Africa with a regularity and frequency — four dozen times, according to one recent estimate — that has largely inured the French public to new interventions.

Then there is the elusive nature of the mission’s long-term success. Judged by the narrowest of criteria — driving back and dispersing the Islamist rebels of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the operation is a victory. The 4,000 French soldiers, aided by a war-ready military contingent from Chad, shattered the Islamist push towards Bamako. Driving north towards the Islamist redoubts in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the vast and heat-blasted expanse of rocks and sand bordering on Niger and Algeria, the French and Chadians liberated the cities of Tombouctou, Gao, and Kidal — events welcomed with deep relief by the local residents.

But the French public knows this success is provisional, built on foundations as shifting as the region’s sand dunes. The French did not destroy the Islamist rebels, but instead mostly dispersed them. The jihadists, far from challenging the French, vanished into the region’s countless ravines and caves. For this reason, as a recent United Nations report warned, the reduction of French patrols in the region "risks leading to the return of armed Islamist groups."

The lack of a clear military victory continues to unsettle the local population, which knows the African forces scheduled to take over the operation under U.N. auspices have neither the capabilities nor convictions of the French. Last week, the French Minister of Defense Jean Yves Le Drian, on an official visit to Mali, echoed these concerns, urging Chad to maintain its military presence after France’s withdrawal. Le Drian warned of a possible "security vacuum" should Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, pull out his troops.

No less worrisome is the political vacuum in Mali. France’s minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, has urged Bamako to hold national elections in July as a means of refurbishing the country’s democratic legitimacy: "The world is watching you," he said recently. But Mali’s political forces are, in turn, watching one another in intense political maneuvering. Most ominously, the Touareg-led secessionist movement based in Kidal, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), whose effort last year to wrest independence from Bamako led to the current crisis, refuses to accept the presence of Malian soldiers on "their" soil. As the movement’s vice-president recently warned, as long as Bamako refuses to negotiate the future status of Azawad, the MNLA will not participate in the July elections. Fabius, for his part, noted that a "democratic nation cannot have two different armies" — an observation with which the MNLA, dreaming of secession, of course agrees. 

But Mali is not the only Francophone nation afflicted with intense political and tribal differences. For the last several months, French politics have been convulsed over a bill, just made into law, which gives gay couples the right to marry and adopt. This is a third reason for the relative indifference in France towards events in Mali. The violence flaring along the margins of the anti-gay Manif Pour Tous demonstrations, in which a number of extreme right movements have participated, has conjured images of the populist, plebiscitary and, for some, fascist movements that threatened republican governments from the 1880s through 1950s. It is not a stretch to place the current unrest in the history of the so-called "guerres franco-françaises" — the civil wars fought over France’s identity that have periodically erupted ever since the Revolution of 1789.

Tellingly, France’s intellectuals have said relatively little over the last three months about the Mali intervention. In part, this is because their status and credibility, like that of France’s politicians, have declined dramatically of late. They no longer can pretend, as they did during the century stretching from the heyday of Emile Zola to that of Jean-Paul Sartre, to speak with authority on issues that call for professional or technical expertise. This was brutally illustrated last week when Onfray, in a forum hosted by Le Monde, lambasted the invasion as a strategic error. In response, two military historians mercilessly dissected Onfray’s vague references to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, as well as his shaky grasp of military strategy, making it clear that the philosopher, wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses, was otherwise naked.

More importantly — and this again brings us to the notion of the Franco-French Wars — most of the country’s intellectuals are deeply preoccupied by the convergence of the Socialist government’s deepening political impotence and the massive anti-gay demonstrations that show little sign of abating. This is not surprising: the crowds have brandished signs declaring: "We will not stop even if the law is passed," "Listen up, Hollande: France is in the streets," "Hollande is not my president," and "Abortion plus gay marriage equals euthanasia." More than one Manif Pour Tous leader has compared Hollande to Hitler and described the new law as a coup d’état. When the movement’s leader, Frijide Barjot, dismissing the president as a "dictator," growls that if "Hollande wants blood, he’ll have it," it suggests that if la patrie est en danger, it is not necessarily because of a motley collection of Islamists wandering the rock-strewn immensities of Mali.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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