France’s Mali campaign stands out as one of the few victories of François Hollande’s first year in office. Little wonder, then, that he cites it often. On Thursday, the president declared the war against Islamist jihadists in northern Mali officially “won.” In Bamako to attend the inauguration of new president Ibrahim Boubacar Këita — France’s withdrawal from Mali hinged on a fair and credible election that Paris itself fast-tracked — Hollande congratulated the French soldiers of Operation Serval, reminding them that the French people were proud of them “wherever you are.”
Including the Central African Republic. Hollande added, “We will undoubtedly boost our presence there.” The remark contrasts with France’s earlier hesitance to intervene in the C.A.R., where rebels overthrew the government on March 24 in a domestic insurgency lacking the international pull (i.e., Al Qaeda-linked militants) of the Mali conflict.
But despite the hint of an expanded military presence to combat C.A.R.’s Séléka rebels and Hollande’s desire to play the hero in front of African leaders, the French president’s statement seems clear meant for the audience at home in France, who have welcomed Hollande’s initiatives — i.e., a government transparency bill, a 75% tax on millionaires, same-sex marriage — with varying degrees of frustration and/or ridicule. His approval ratings have hovered around 30% since he took office in May 2012, with the exception of a brief boost following the Mali intervention, when it hit 44%. Now, stinging from the embarrassment of his zeal for a U.S. military strike in Syria, minus the backing of the French public, Hollande looks eager to deflect attention once again.
However, with renewed focus on the repercussions of France’s African presence — thanks to an al Qaeda video of four French hostages being held in West Africa, released on September 16 — Hollande must tread lightly when it comes to floating a new military intervention. Meaning that for now, France’s C.A.R. role will remain hypothetical. And, with the far-right opposition on the rise, expect Hollande to play up Mali for as long as he can. But given that France’s role in Syria remains unclear and that over half of French voters strongly disapprove of the president’s handling of the crisis, don’t look for his C.A.R. messaging to have much effect where he needs it most.