Mali war shows France is Africa's reluctant gendarme
Despite sending warplanes and soldiers to fight Islamists in the Sahara, President Francois Hollande has largely kept his promise to shun the shady system that saw France dictate politics in former African colonies, analysts said.
But the Mali conflict shows that the Socialist leader must accept that France is destined to play gendarme in Africa, they noted.
Hollande made his vow in a speech to Senegal's parliament in October, saying "francafrique", the murky system France used to maintain political and business interests in the colonies it gave up in the 1960s, was dead and buried.
On Tuesday he insisted his decision to send hundreds of troops to Mali -- to battle Islamists poised to seize control of the entire country and install a Taliban-like regime -- had "nothing to do with the policies of another era".
The intervention that began Friday was of a very different nature to previous French military ventures in Africa, said Paul Melly of the Chatham House think-tank in London.
"You can't say it is like the old-style 'francafrique' because that was France getting involved in decisions about overthrowing African governments or changing presidents or keeping allied regimes in place," he said.
In Mali, "what we've got is a normal interaction between sovereign governments", with the former colony asking Paris to provide support for its ramshackle army in the fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked extremists.
"I think that what you might call the face-value explanation given by the French government, that if the French had not intervened then the jihadists would probably have taken over southern Mali, including (the capital) Bamako, seems entirely plausible," he said.
And that would have been a threat to all of West Africa, Melly noted.
France, whose colonial empire was the second largest in the world after Britain's and spanned much of west and central Africa, has thousands of troops stationed in Africa and maintains three major military bases in Djibouti, Senegal and Gabon.
Its soldiers have frequently intervened on the continent in the post-colonial era, sometimes to sway an African state's internal politics under the "francafrique" system put in place by president Charles de Gaulle.
An uprising in the Central African Republic provided an opportunity last month to test Hollande's resolve to break with past practices, said Antoine Glaser, a writer on African affairs.
Despite pleas from the country's president who was worried that rapidly advancing rebels were about to capture the capital, he conspicuously refused to let French troops stationed there be used to prop up the regime.
In stark contrast, Glaser said, Hollande made a snap decision to deploy major military force in Mali.
"When it is a question of international security, such as the battle against terrorism, then obviously it is France that will be on the front line" in much of Africa, he said.
Richard Banegas, a historian and Africa specialist, said the Mali crisis gave France the chance to face up to the fact that it was a country "that has a foreign policy which can include military engagement if our interests are at stake, which does not mean that this is a recolonisation of the continent".
"Africa for the Africans is not operational (in the case of Mali) because the problem is not African, it is global, it is regional and it concerns the interests of France in the sub-region and on its own soil," he said.
West African states had been preparing a United Nations-approved force to intervene in Mali to oust the Islamists, who had seized the north after a coup last March.
But they were dithering and after a swift Islamist advance towards the capital, France decided to send in its own force to hold back the rebels until the African troops were in place.
France's foreign minister recently rejected the suggestion that France was obliged to be Africa's gendarme. But given its military presence and its historic links with the continent, this is the role it will likely have to play, said analysts.
"It would be very difficult for France not to be involved in conflicts on the continent," said Glaser.
Melly of Chatham House said that in the case of Mali, Hollande had little choice.
"If having made those commitments to support reform and economic development and the progress of a modern democratic Africa, if France had then done nothing (in Mali)... that would have been a betrayal of what Hollande was saying," he said.
But he noted that as the president has only been in power a few months, it is still too soon to say whether he can keep his promise on "francafrique".
His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy also promised to break with the 'francafrique' networks of his predecessors. In his five years in power he used French troops to help install the democratically elected president in Ivory Coast and spearheaded the international intervention in Libya in 2011.
Critics point out that France under Hollande still has close ties with African states, such as Gabon, Cameroon, Congo and Chad, whose governments have poor human rights records.
"If there is a domestic political problem in these countries France will not of course intervene like it might have in the past, but at the same time it doesn't want to offend these presidents" because of its economic or military interests in these countries, said Glaser.
© 2013 AFP