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January 24, 2013

Colonial Ties Cloud Debate Over French Intervention in Mali

by Henry Ridgwell

France's intervention in Mali against Islamist militants has been welcomed by most moderate Malians. For some, however, the military action has uncomfortable echoes of Europe's colonial past in Africa.  And France is disappointed by a less than enthusiastic response from its European partners.

On a back street of the Paris suburb Montreuil lies the Foyer Bara, home to dozens of Malians who have emigrated to the former colonial power. Here you can get everything from a hot lunch to a haircut.

One topic dominates conversation: France’s military intervention.

Lammy Kamara is a Malian studying in Paris, who said the Malian people are happy because of the intervention against these people he called fanatics, who manipulate Islam. But he argued that the true cause of the crisis in the North is underdevelopment. And the causes of this poverty, he said, were imposed by the same nation that Mali now has asked to help stop the terrorism.

Support amid complicated past

France has had a difficult relationship with some of its immigrant communities in recent years, particularly in the suburbs of Paris. But most of the Malian community in Montreuil firmly supports France’s intervention in their home country.

The support goes both ways. Malian musicians performed at a recent solidarity meeting at Montreuil town hall. Top of the bill was Harlem Désir, chairman of the ruling Socialist Party. Désir said he had a message for "our" Malian friends: "We only want one thing - one Mali, free and democratic, and peaceful. Long live Mali, long live France, long live Montreuil, and long live the Republic."

Critics in France have called the military intervention ‘neo-colonialist.' That’s wrong, said Mahamadou Cissé, Vice President of the Council of Malians.

Cissé said France was the old colonial power of many African countries, including Mali. So the question of a French military intervention is always sensitive. But in this particular case, he said, there are circumstances that give it legitimacy, give it legality.

Advocating intervention amid tepid EU help

Damien Helly is another resident of Montreuil and a Visiting Professor of the College of Europe, specializing in African affairs. “When a crisis erupts and the Africans are not ready to intervene, what do we have to do here in Europe as former colonial powers? So I think Mali is exactly a case of this dilemma for France, which is to intervene or not,” he said.

Helly said France has been left disappointed by the European Union (EU).

“Of course it’s a test for Europe. In the last four or five years you can see there’s been a lack of appetite from European members states to act militarily as the EU. France is the exception there, where it has been pushing for more intervention, but nobody really wants to do that anymore,” he said.

The residents of the Foyer Bara say they want a swift victory against the Islamist militants. Many Malians also wonder, though, what will happen after French troops depart.