VIEW : France’s intervention in Mali — Sabria Balland Chowdhury
Despite all of the economic woes on the domestic front, a surprising 75 percent of France’s population supported the deployment of its troops to Mali
Since being elected in May 2012, France’s Socialist President Hollande has been highly unpopular at the polls and generally unsuccessful at addressing with focus the country’s ailing economy and soaring unemployment rates. His attempts at taxing the wealthiest companies and individuals with an annual income of one million Euros or more at a rate of 75 percent has not seen any success even among those in the middle class who would not be affected.
However, all this changed in the last few days with Hollande’s very decisive stance on military intervention in its former colony Mali, in order to contain fundamentalist Muslim militant groups, which have gained significant control of certain parts of the country. Until now, Hollande had positioned himself as an anti-war supporter, with an early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and had envisioned a more subtle role for France in West Africa. France’s foreign ministry had until now always maintained that it would not and could not lead in the frontline with troops in Mali, indicating that its former colonial role in the region was something of the past and that its current role would be much more low key.
President Hollande, in explaining France’s sudden, active military role in Mali, stated that he had a legal international responsibility backed by the UN and a request for help from Mali’s president. Despite Hollande’s decision, France is keenly aware of its baggage in Africa. Since ending its colonial rule there, the Elysee has been accused of pulling strings, corruption, and selecting contested leaders to suit Paris’ business interests.
Political analysts see France’s current active role in Mali as a political image changer for Hollande. It shows a definite decisiveness, which he has thus far been unable to demonstrate, specially where economic decisions are concerned. The argument that it is France’s responsibility to deter threatening jihadist movements in the West African country, and possibly eventual infiltration into European territories, could also be seen by Hollande’s critics as a possible diversion from massive economic challenges at home.
The unemployment rate increased to 10.30 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the highest it has ever been in more than a decade. The high unemployment rate has also brought with it a hugely significant strain on France’s well-established social programmes such as its world famous national health insurance system, which faces severe debt, further placing more strains on the economy.
In November 2012, France was stripped of its gold plated credit rating, worrying investors and policymakers. Furthermore, the IMF predicts that France’s economic growth will be a mere 0.4 percent in 2013. In addition, because of apprehension of the elevated tax rates that were proposed during the elections by Hollande, many businesses have preferred to leave France and set up in neighbouring European countries such the UK and Belgium, which have much more liberal laws and incentives for higher incomes.
Other very difficult issues that face Hollande — who is often criticised for being indecisive and inexperienced — are his proposals to legalise gay marriage and adoption for gay couples, a bill that has received unexpectedly high resistance and opposition.
However, despite all of the economic woes on the domestic front, a surprising 75 percent of France’s population supported the deployment of its troops to Mali. It has also received widespread support from Hollande’s political opponents. A recent survey showed that a remarkable three quarters of the French people back Hollande’s decision. This marks the first time in 15 years that military intervention has seen this kind of support. The key, common consensus is that Hollande has shown decisiveness, something that he has not done on other issues until now.
This appeasement could not have come at a more perfect time for President Hollande, who has had a sharp fall in approval ratings since the presidential elections in May 2012. The operation in Mali could take much longer than expected and the risk of a long-term involvement could revive accusations of France’s long-term dominance in West Africa, which the administration strongly denies.
However, in spite of all these speculations, the most important factor remains that this is the first time there has been such positive feedback regarding the French president. Considering also that it comes at a time when domestic issues have such a heavily negative impact on French voters, it can most definitely be considered a first victory in receiving public support and approval for the newly elected president.
Hopefully, issues on the domestic front can also eventually be tackled by Hollande rapidly with the same if not similar approval ratings. The need for France, being the second largest economy in Europe and the ninth largest in the world, to overcome its current economic obstacles is essential in maintaining a healthy balance of economic and geo-political power within Europe. Here’s to wishing “Une bonne continuation, M. le President.”
The writer is an English and French professor and columnist residing in the USA and France. She can be reached at email@example.com