France Alone?

France's military intervention in Mali is the third such French action in just two years, following intervention in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. While many believe that France is behaving like a neo-colonial power, a more persuasive explanation of French behavior is Europe's military weakness.

PARIS – In less than two years, France has carried out three decisive foreign military interventions. In March 2011, its airstrikes in Libya (alongside those of Great Britain) thwarted Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s troops as they prepared to retake the city of Benghazi. A month later, French forces in Côte d’Ivoire arrested President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to recognize his rival’s election victory, putting the country at risk of civil war. Now France has intervened in Mali.

The latest intervention was initially planned as part of a European mission to support African forces, but France abruptly decided to act unilaterally to blunt the advance of Islamists who threatened to overrun Mopti, the last barrier before reaching the capital, Bamako. Beyond that objective, France seeks to protect its many nationals in the region; maintain stability in the Sahel, where states are very weak; and prevent Mali’s transformation into a base of Islamist terrorism directed at Europe.

A lot is at stake – all the more so because French intervention is likely to be extensive. While the Islamists have been temporarily defeated, they are well armed and receive supplies from Libya via Algeria, which has suppressed Islamists at home but seems to turn a blind eye to their transit through its territory. Moreover, the capabilities of the Malian army and those of other West African countries that are supposed to join the operation are too weak to turn the tide. The United States tried to train the Malian army, but failed miserably.