Officially, French soldiers are fighting in Mali for security reasons. But is it out of charity that leads the French Government to do so?
“We want to be sure that Mali is safe when we withdraw our troops. We want Mali to have legitimate representatives in the electoral process and no more terrorists threatening the country,” said François Hollande in Abu Dhabi on the 15th January. Whilst the UN Security Council’s resolution provides for “the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali”, France argues that its own interests seriously threatened.
The Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian pursued another approach to defend the operation: it was impossible to sit and watch “a terrorist state developing on Europe’s doorstep.” He made clear that, due to the tight connection between West and North Africa, the creation of an Al Qaeda state in the region would directly threaten France’s security.
France has close relations with North African countries such as Libya, Algeria or Tunisia, so would want to prevent a spread of the conflict and a destabilisation of the region. The official policy states: “France is not called upon to intervene in any regional conflict. However, when its interests are at stake, it must, in its role as a permanent member of the UN Security
Power from Africa
There are many voices in the European media, which say France is intervening in Mali for the sake of its energy supply. That is not surprising since 80% of France’s electricity is from nuclear power, and the region of West Africa is rich with uranium deposits.
Neighbouring Niger, which is the world’s fifth-largest uranium producer, accounts for 33% of France’s uranium supply, but that is set to rise. The French energy company Areva, which is mostly state-owned, is opening a new exploration site in Imouraren, about 300 kilometres from the Malian border. Areva has been calling for military protection of the uranium mines for a long time, but their requests have been rejected on the basis that elite soldiers could not be used permanently to safeguard economic interests.
Recent terrorist attacks on French citizens, such as those in Algeria, have made Paris warier of the threat to important industry and mining installations in West Africa. Days after the Algeria hostage crisis, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave his consent for the use of a special unit to protect the mine in Imouraren. The minster’s decision shows that the government takes the threat of its economic interests by terrorists in West Africa seriously.
Apart from the defence of the existing mines, France is interested in competing for the stocks of other resources. In March 2012, the Malian government under Amadou Toumani Touré had started to grant exploration rights in the country. The Authority for the Promotion of Oil Research in Mali (AUREP) was set up to divide the land into 29 regions, of which 20 are now available to foreign companies. Both international and Malian resource companies have been prospecting.
“This is why the interests of the United States are very similar to the French ones,” says Mehdi Taje from Strategic Security Centre for the Sahel and Sahara. They want to “secure the energy resources of the Sahel and deter rival powers such as China, Russia, India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil.” The main competitors are the Chinese, who have already received the permission to exploit oil in Niger 18 months ago.
“For the French, the time of the conquest of territories is already completed,” explains Taje. “France wants to strengthen its presence gently, but still strong enough to scare the Chinese.” In any case, it has to act carefully to avoid accusations of hegemony and neo-colonialism.
After France’s call for help, other European countries have decided to provide assistance. Following the conversation between François Hollande and the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Mark Simmonds announced the use of two C17 transport aircrafts and a small technical team: “The situation in Mali is a serious concern for the UK. As a responsible member of the Security Council, we must support the region in limiting the danger of instability in that part of Africa, threatening UK interests.”
However, he made clear that this decision was merely made to support the French deployment: “France, which has a historic relationship with Mali, is quite rightly in the lead. In the coming days we will be focused on the regional and international diplomacy we must achieve to check this emerging threat.”
Germany has also been unwilling to get involved and only sent two Transall transport planes. Support for the French intervention is controversial in the country that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Franco-German friendship in January.
But then again, even if opinions within the populations are split, France does not stand alone. It has the support of the United Nations and its partners in the EU. Béchir Ben Yahmed, founder of the magazine Jeune Afrique said: “The terrorists have made a crucial mistake: they created a situation in which besides the two major African powers, Nigeria and Algeria, also Europe and the U.S. see their interests threatened.”
Whilst the other European nations are taking a back seat, the French are standing at the front line. This is despite the UN resolution clearly stating that the mission should be African-led. Clearly, France would support an African-led mission, but the determination and speed with which they operate shows one thing: if they see their interests endangered, they would rather take matters into their own hands.