Taking France to war against the scourge of global terrorism was not something anyone would have expected from a François Hollande presidency. The mild-mannered Socialist had pledged before coming to power last May to enact a few radical policies, but most were concerned with taxing the rich to the extent that many would end up leaving the country, in the manner of film star Gerard Depardieu.
As far as foreign policy was concerned, Mr Hollande always portrayed himself as a dove – an isolationist with far more interest in the redistribution of domestic wealth than anything that was happening abroad.
Yet here we are, just eight months since the electoral defeat of the far more aggressive president Nicolas Sarkozy, and Mr Hollande has taken on the mantle of the most unlikely warmonger in recent European history.
The president’s determination to send considerable military resources to the blighted West African state of Mali – a former French colony – is truly astonishing. Not only does it contradict Mr Hollande’s earlier commitment to scale down involvement in France’s former colonies, but it also flies in the face of his decision to withdraw troops from the 12-year struggle by the western allies against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
With barely a word to his own parliament – let alone electorate – Mr Hollande has attacked Al Qaeda-backed fighters in both Mali and Somalia. On Friday, French fighters started to bomb jihadist bases in Mali, from where the rebels were threatening to advance on the country’s capital, Bamako. At the same time, French commandos launched an attempt, which failed, to free a compatriot held captive by similarly ferocious Islamist insurgents in neighbouring Somalia since 2009.
The ultimate aim as far as Mali is concerned, according to the French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, is to crush the development of “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe”. Just as Afghanistan is viewed as a hotbed of radical activity, providing training camps and a place to stockpile weapons, so Mali is potentially a base for carrying out politically-motivated atrocities all over the world.
Mr Hollande credits his mandate for war to the interim Malian president, Dioncounda Traoré, who has declared a state of emergency. The Islamists have, for the past nine months, controlled vast desert swathes of northern Mali, but recently captured the strategic city of Konna, just over 640 kilometres from Bamako.
Beyond the Malian government’s desperate calls for assistance, France has its own reasons for taking action. It was Mali’s colonial master until 1960, and maintains strong trading links. There are French garrisons in neighbouring countries like Ivory Coast, Chad and the Central African Republic containing up to 5,000 troops in total – all involved in the long-standing security commitment to French-speaking Africa which Mr Hollande had actually promised to reduce.
The trouble, as far as Mr Hollande is concerned, is that the history of his country’s involvement in its former colonies is a dark one. Former president Jacques Chirac was one of many who meddled and muddled, to the extent of destroying much of the Ivory Coast’s air force in 2004 because of alleged treaty breaches. France launched more than 50 military operations in its old African empire since 1960, viewing the area as its exclusive sphere of influence.
It is an open secret that France has regularly propped up controversial African leaders for its own gain. It is all part of a “Françafrique” policy stretching back to the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, which involved France maintaining both its political influence and its strategic grip on oil- and mineral-rich countries.
The same cynically pragmatic approach to world affairs might well be in evidence this week; Mr Hollande was in the UAE yesterday to attend Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, but was expected to discuss a possible sale of 60 Rafale fighter jets and to support French oil giant Total’s position in the Emirates. “We are not ashamed about backing our companies,” said Mr Hollande, following criticism that an international arms dealing session might appear mistimed given what is going on in Mali.
Remember that Mr Hollande is not a popular president in France at the moment. He has bungled domestic policies, including the vaunted 75 per cent top tax rate on those earning more than €1 million (Dh4.9 million) a year. The move was deemed unconstitutional, although further attempts are being made to get it through parliament. Meanwhile, both unemployment and the cost of living rise as the economy stagnates.
Foreign policy adventures are invariably used by struggling presidents to try to lift their electoral ratings at home. Look at the way Mr Sarkozy turned on his former friend, Muammar Qaddafi, using French fighter jets to help topple the Libyan despot at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011. So it is that Mr Hollande thinks that a short spell of intense military activity in a former colony may help him out.
This is all very well if everything goes right, but there is every possibility that it will not. The official terrorist risk assessment across France has already been stepped up to its highest level, while on Friday a downed French helicopter pilot became the first casualty of what could turn into a long, bloody and hugely unpopular war.