Since its start nearly three weeks ago, the French mission to Mali has met with a series of rapid military victories — and a French pullout may be imminent, according to Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who told a French newspaper, “We will leave quickly.” The news came with the same rapidity as Socialist president François Hollande’s initial decision to send troops to combat Islamist rebels in the first place.
That choice carried with it great political risk. But to the surprise of many political observers, Hollande’s announcement of the French campaign — dubbed Operation Serval — was met with largely positive domestic reactions. While the French have in recent years opposed armed interventions (at least when they are conducted by nations other than France), the Mali campaign drew high approval ratings and support from 75 percent of those polled in the week after its announcement. Hollande has since maintained widespread public support despite initial setbacks, like the death of a French pilot on the first day of the offensive and a deadly retaliatory attack on a gas installation in neighboring Algeria. Early successes like the seizures of the key Malian towns of Diabaly and Gao ensured the ongoing support of the French public.
This support provides a needed boost to Hollande, who was nicknamed “flamby” (after a wobbly pudding) during last year’s election campaign. Thanks to Operation Serval, the French president has shed his image as a meek, indecisive leader, prompting French newspapers to proclaim “Finally President! and “Leading the War!” Hollande was also attacked in the press by former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin for launching a “neoconservative” campaign that evoked a “déjà vu of arguments for the ‘war against terrorism’” — itself evidence, at least, that the meek Hollande may be no more.
Public approval of the Mali intervention stems largely from France’s colonial ties to the West African nation, which still seem to have a strong hold on the national consciousness (as well as legitimate fears of the insurgents). But despite Hollande’s surge in popularity following the launch of Operation Serval (his approval rating jumped to 44 percent from 40 percent), he faces long-term political fallout. His inconsistent policy in Africa has already come under fire from opponents. And while a string of initial successes could bode well for the intervention, France still risks eventual retaliation from Islamist extremists, be it directed against France directly or against targets nearer at hand (see the above-noted retaliatory attack in Algeria).
And notwithstanding encouraging victories — notably the retaking of Timbuktu, Mali’s historic and cultural center — France still runs the danger of getting bogged down in a long, messy campaign. In fact, the Mali offensive’s potential longevity may be the greatest threat to Hollande’s current popularity, even as very real challenges, like contentious gay-marriage legislation and a widely-ridiculed 75 percent tax on the superwealthy, loom on the homefront.
But for the moment, Hollande is enjoying unprecedented public support and nearly unanimous backing across the political spectrum. Although any number of scenarios could turn the tide against him — namely collateral damage, serious terrorist threats on French soil, and public frustration with the estimated $530,000 per day cost of the campaign — a decisive victory in Mali would become for France’s president what Osama Bin Laden’s capture was for U.S. President Barack Obama — i.e., political gold. All he has to do is secure a rapid defeat (and not a mere retreat) of the Islamist militants operating in Mali — those would be the same rebels who promised to drag France into a trap “more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”, remember — and ensure a painless departure from a war-torn region in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. (Simple enough, non?) The keen awareness of these dangers may well explain Foreign Minister Fabius’ emphasis on African troops taking over, thus paving the way for a swift French exit and a neat shifting of blame, should it become necessary.