West Africa - SahelBlog Analysis

In Mali, the French are not destined to stay... but will they stay anyway?

Arrival in Timbuktu (credit: French Ministry of Defense / DICOD / ECPAD)

(B2) The duration of French involvement in Mali still remains unclear in public language. “ We will continue these actions as long as necessary explains the Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian from his first press conference on Mali, on Saturday January 12, in Paris. The French do not have vocation to remain eternally in Mali. It is up to Africans to lead this action on the front line” complete Laurent Fabius, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a few days later, on January 17, in Brussels, during the extraordinary meeting of the European Union devoted to Mali. Between the two ministers, one could believe there was a hiatus. The contradiction is only apparent.

Ua new phase begins

Receiving the Polish Prime Minister (Donald Tusk) on Monday (January 28), President Francois Hollande, himself, synthesizes this contradiction. He begins by taking stock of the victorious results of the French troops. And it may seem like he's turning a page. “ Stopping the terrorist offensive, it's done. Reconquer cities with the Malian army and African forces, we are in the process of carrying out this operation. "Rest, northern Mali" still under the control of terrorists ". And the president continued: “ It is the Africans who will ensure that Mali regains its territorial integrity. » We therefore have the impression that a first phase of the operation has been completed and that we are moving on to another. The president also confirms: “ France has no vocation to stay in Mali”.

Objective: Sustainable stabilization and sufficient security

But the French president immediately adds “On the other hand, our duty is to ensure that we can allow African forces to give Mali lasting stability, even beyond the territorial integrity that must actually be obtained. We are also ensuring that the African contingents can now deploy to take over from the Malian army and the French army when we have sufficiently secured the territory. » Lasting stability and sufficient security of the territory now seem to be the new objectives of this mission.

At least: Until the elections?

I interrogated Kader Arif, the Minister Delegate for Defense and Veterans Affairs (passing through Brussels this Wednesday (January 30). And, according to him, the stabilization in Mali by a " military and operational stabilization "but also a" political and economic stabilization ". Asking him to specify when this objective could be considered fulfilled, he replied: a “ stabilized political power, elections (are) among the major elements » of this stabilization. The French soldiers would remain like this at least until the “ date of the elections » (scheduled for July), he told me.

Comment: a tricky deal

We thus have, if not a precise date, at least a temporal objective. Now this does not mean an identical commitment. The situation is indeed delicate. In operational and political terms, it is a question of endorsing the good results of the lightning intervention of the French (and the Malians), without getting bogged down for years, therefore by leaving quickly enough, so as not to give rise to hints of barracks and colonial intervention. At the same time, we must not allow a turnaround in the situation by too rapid a withdrawal (such as Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal are liberated, we are leaving). Which would be catastrophic, just as would be a somewhat chaotic situation of inter-faction or joint score-settling. Everything must respect both the constitutional autonomy of Mali and international legality. It is between these narrow paths that French “strategists” will have to navigate. The French presence will remain at least until the summer. Unless the situation changes, the number of soldiers involved should visibly decrease. To be discreet, it will however have to be placed in fairly strategic places (airport, cities, etc.) to be dissuasive, or near African troops, to provide a sort of “mentoring” or support, according to modalities which still remain to be determined. define, at least to be explained publicly.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).