France's Mali intervention crucial to prevent rise of jihadist state
Despite the many risks, Hollande believes he must interfere in the battle against Islamist rebels in order to prevent the creation of a jihadist state
Agence France-Presse in New York
Just as its leaders were defining a new "hands-off" strategy for Africa, France has been thrust on to the front line of one of the continent's riskiest battlefields deep in the desert of Mali.
President Francois Hollande's backing of air strikes to halt Islamist rebels advancing on the capital Bamako raises the threat level for eight French hostages held by al-Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30,000 French expatriates living in neighbouring, mostly Muslim, states.
It could also trigger an attack on French soil. But, in what could be the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency, Hollande bet that inaction bore a greater peril of a jihadist state like Afghanistan under the Taliban.
"We must stop the rebels' offensive, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands - creating a threat for Africa and even for Europe," his foreign minister Laurent Fabius said.
Now that France deployed troops, C-160 transport aircraft, attack helicopters and has Rafale jets on standby, the question is: where does it go from here?
The intervention came weeks after Paris conspicuously failed to rescue the incumbent leader in Central African Republic, another ex-colony, leaving President Francois Bozize no alternative but to accept a power-sharing pact with insurgents.
The Bozize snub was a sign that Hollande's government was banging another nail in the coffin of "Francafrique", the shady system under which Paris propped up African leaders aligned to French business interests.
Hollande's government stresses that France is not falling back into old habits.
Its presence is legitimised by UN resolutions mandating foreign intervention to support Mali forces. The US and Britain have also signalled backing, and even opposition French conservatives mostly say Hollande did the right thing. Reports of public amputations in rebel-held northern Mali as tough shariah law is imposed will persuade many French voters the intervention was just.
But events on the ground could change that quickly.
While the Mali Islamists are a rag-tag army, they managed to grab much of the arms that spilled out of Libya and can inflict real damage, including the downing of a French helicopter on the first day of strikes.
By going to help the Malian army, Hollande defied threats by the rebels' allies, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to kill the French hostages taken across the Sahara in past years.
As the failure of a French commando bid last week to free a secret agent held in Somalia since 2009 shows, it will be hard for him to guarantee their safety.
"With this [Mali] intervention, the French president has shown he did not want to be taken hostage himself by the issue of the French hostages held by AQIM. That is an act of political courage," said Mathieu Pellerin, head of the Centre of Strategic Intelligence on the African Continent.
With some of the rebel Malian fighters living side by side with their families, the further risk is of collateral damage that would drain domestic and foreign support for the action.
"If we jump in then we could have horrific images of children, women killed," said one French diplomatic source.