Between the fight against terrorism and questions about the sustainability of Françafrique, what legitimacy for French intervention in Mali?
We are publishing an excerpt from the new book by Johanna Siméant-Germanos, Grégory Daho and Florent Pouponneau, teacher-researchers in political science, respectively at the Department of Social Sciences of the ENS, at the Department of Political Sciences of the University of Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne , at Sciences Po Strasbourg “Going to war in Mali”, published in the “Social Sciences” Collection of Rue d'Ulm. This passage focuses on the military operation Serval led by the French army in northern Mali in 2013-2014.
French strategy in Africa
Would Serval be just another jolt of Françafrique? In terms of French interventions in Africa, a break marked the mid-1990s. The questioning of France's role in Rwanda, the Balladur doctrine conditioning support for alignment with the criteria of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, then the Jospinian doctrine of "neither interference nor indifference", contributed to a return to favor of the discourse evoking the end of Françafrique.
The redeployment of the French strategy which seems to be taking place in Africa, and with a few unilateral exceptions, especially in Ivory Coast in 2002, materializes through the multilateral promotion of numerous cooperation programs aimed at regionalizing the continent's security: Strengthening African Peacekeeping Capacities (RECAMP), Security Sector Reforms (SSR), Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR). If support for regional groupings is the principle around which France today articulates its security diplomacy – like the mobilization of ECOWAS upstream of Operation Serval, the renewed American interest in the continent is manifested by another option: direct support for some pivotal states (South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal).
However, it is France, and not the European Union or a UN force, which went to war in Mali. Serval seems to constitute under this aspect a "regionalized unilateralism": if the unilateral implementation of the military intervention is not in doubt (despite, as we will see, the dependence on American means of transport and surveillance and the support on the Chadian troops), its preparation and its legitimation borrow a multilateral register. France's African policy therefore continues to translate into "a interference anointed with the multilateral, UN, African or European Blessed Sacrament in which it never really respects the multilateral and African game that it claims to be playing”.
In other words, the multilateral management of African crises is not incompatible with the unilateral logic inherited from colonial history. France has less abandoned its neocolonial tradition than it has been pushed to do by the retraction of its means and the weakening of its legitimacy. And EU interventions are carried out with a leading country which has every chance of being a former colonial country.
The fight against terrorism
Another peculiarity distinguishes Serval in the history of French interventions in Africa. We are certainly dealing with a lightning operation made possible by the colonial heritage – defense agreements, prepositioned forces, know-how and reciprocal expectations between French and Malian authorities. But Mali was not historically part of the Foccartian pre-square, and the affinities between Malian and French political elites had nothing to do with those which characterized, on the contrary, the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire. – even Senegal.
In 1960, Mali had brutally announced its independence, and opted for a socialist path. Considered a State with few natural resources, Mali is a "heavily indebted poor country" (HIPC) of which France remains the 2e official development assistance (ODA) funder. If there was an economic interest in intervening, he first referred to neighboring Niger, a supplier of uranium. Intervention is therefore not simply a matter of the classic game of Françafrique transactions.
The intervention in Mali must therefore be placed in the sequence that began in 2001 in the United States and ten years later in France: the systematization of the “fight against terrorism”. We cannot simply consider this narration as a rhetorical dressing, as its effects are structuring on the legitimization and the enunciation of the ways of waging war, of justifying it and of financing it. In particular, Operation Barkhane, which will follow Serval, is often described on the edge of anti-terrorism and State building.
The legitimacy of Operation Serval
First of all, the political legitimacy of these interventions comes from international mandates even if, strictly speaking, the multilateral justification of French action in Côte d'Ivoire in 2002 or in Mali in 2013 intervenes a posteriori. Then, the legitimization of an intervention depends on the opportunity: in the Malian case, in addition to the "column" materializing the threat, the bad calculations of the "jihadist groups". Thirdly, the intervention requires financial resources burdened by the repayment of public deficits. These resources condition the manpower and the means used (men on the ground, air support, surveillance system, rental of troop transport planes and equipment). Finally, national support constitutes the last level of preparation for an intervention: beyond the involvement of intermediary bodies and other opinion relays (journalists, parliamentarians, industrialists, researchers, etc.), most studies show that this support declines over time.
In other words, the age of the military presence in Africa is only one factor, admittedly a major one, among others in explaining the morphology of a lightning operation (in any case planned as such at its start), at the same such as the regular participation in multilateral post-Cold War interventions, the responsiveness of the decision-making chain or the professional expertise recognized for officers by the political authorities. It is by combining all of these factors that the French authorities have been able to reinforce the multilateral legitimacy of the intervention while maintaining strong operational autonomy in relation to the United Nations.
The anti-terrorist framing of the intervention in Mali contributes to two unintended effects: the search by states an international annuity of the [fight against terrorism], and, on the analytical level, a narrowly securitized reading depoliticizing local issues. However, the history of northern irredentisms, Tuaregs in particular – and their growing articulation with the Sahelian upheavals, shows that rallying to the themes of which the “jihadist” organizations were carriers also refers to the long history of dissatisfaction, and of their politicization, in northern Mali.
Le initial uprising, from the MNLA, run by young people Tuareg educated, rallied by elders returning from Libya, was quickly "overtaken" by "jihadist" organizations, including Ansar Dine, led by Iyad al Ghaly, who took advantage of the destabilization caused to gain the upper hand in the North. The rallying logics varied according to the places of their anchoring and what they offered: the Mujao, for example, essentially recruited in Gao in the early days, relying in particular on an old land dispute between Peuls and Tuaregs, before being rallied by large traders, traffickers and notables of the Lemhar community. We understand that the widespread discourse among some of the officers of the French army of a potential MNLA partner, if it has its own rationality, neglects the particularly complex logic of rallying to the uprisings in the north.
This article is published as part of the symposium “African Modernities. Conversations, circulations, decentrings”, which takes place from June 9 to 11, 2022 at ENS-PSL, on the Jourdan and Ulm campuses. Find the program here of these exchanges.
Johanna Siméant-Germanos, Professor of political science, École normale supérieure (ENS) - PSL; Florent Pouponneau, Lecturer in political science, Sciences Po Strasbourg – University of Strasbourg, and Gregory Daho, Lecturer in political science, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University