March 11, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: France’s Forays Into Africa: Security and National Interest

• It has been just over a year since France sent troops to Mali, disrupting a violent extremist campaign to take over the West African country

• French military interventions in Mali, and later in the Central African Republic (CAR), in addition to taking the lead in the bombing campaign against Libyan government forces in 2011, indicate that France’s military power is waxing once again in the Mediterranean and Africa

• While it’s too early to tell if the trend will continue, it seems likely that France will remain committed to security in the region as it feels the need to protect its citizens and economic and business interests abroad

• The US and UK seem more than willing to support France’s efforts in Africa in order to relieve the constant burden of global military operations the two countries have sustained for the last thirteen years.

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French Rafale Prepares for Aircraft Carrier Launch


Increased Activity & Involvement

When it comes to taking the offensive against terrorism, it’s usually the US or a US-led coalition that makes the first move. But in January 2013, when a combined force of militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) hijacked a Tuareg-led coup in northern Mali, threatening to overrun the West African state, it wasn’t the US or even the UN that responded to the threat.

Instead—quite surprisingly to some—it was France that intervened and disrupted the jihadi extremists’ offensive as they pushed south from their northern strongholds in an effort to expand their influence and institute their form of sharia law throughout Mali. The initial buildup of approximately 5,000 French troops, supported by helicopter and jet fighter assets, quickly scattered the militants and restored order throughout the country, paving the way for presidential elections just months after French troops entered the country.

While France’s intervention in Mali is the former’s most publicized military action in the past decade (a less publicized, and unsuccessful, commando raid to rescue a captured French intelligence agent in Somalia was launched the same day French forces entered Mali)—it was neither its first nor its last. Prior to assisting Mali, it was France that aggressively pushed for a NATO military campaign against Libya in 2011, and was the first country to attack Muammar Qadhafi’s forces during the Arab Spring uprising.

France was also the first among Western nations to propose military strikes against Syrian government targets after the suspected use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad last September. And in December, eleven months after intervening in Mali, France deployed troops to CAR to halt growing sectarian violence between that country’s Christian and Muslim populations after Muslim rebels seized power in the majority Christian country.


The “Why?”

Three high-profile military campaigns in as many years from a country which, in the late 20th century, garnered a reputation for its distaste for any military involvement (and which was much maligned in the US for its vehement opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with its half-hearted participation in both Kosovo and Afghanistan), begs the question, “why now?” 

“Security and national interest” is the simple answer, though France’s long-standing relationship with Mali, CAR (formerly French Equatorial Africa), and most of the other North African and West African countries that once fell under its colonial influence, is anything but simple. While a lingering feeling of responsibility for its former colonies may be partly driving France’s recent actions, it is the other, more complex issues such as business investments, economic interests, resource accessibility, and concerns for the French citizenry scattered throughout the region that are the country’s primary motivations.

Uranium and oil are the two most important natural resources in Western Africa, and France has a large stake in both. French-owned uranium mines in Mali’s neighbor, Niger (as of last year, a contingent of French special operations forces were sent there to guard those interests), provide the energy needed to run France’s 58 nuclear reactors responsible for producing 75% of the country’s electricity. Add to that the burgeoning oil and uranium mining opportunities in Mali, and a rapidly expanding Chinese presence competing for those coveted resources in what has traditionally been France’s “backyard,” and the reasoning for the country’s increased military involvement is more apparent.


The Long Haul

France has steadily whittled down its troop contingent in Mali despite a recent resurgence in violent extremist activity there. The mission shifted to training and advising Mali’s military, with the goal of local forces’ eventually taking over security for their own country. And the intervention in CAR, which was originally intended to last through April of this year, was extended on February 25 by a vote in the French parliament, due to growing concerns of increasing violence despite the French army’s presence.

Even with the arbitrary withdrawal deadlines at the start of France’s recent operations, it seems likely that both the military leadership and the government suspected French troops would be on the ground in Africa longer than first announced. By committing to the long term—despite deep military budget cuts and lukewarm public support—France is showing Africa, and the rest of the world, that it can be a major player on the world stage once again.


       • The active—if somewhat limited—military support the US and UK have provided to France in the last year can be expected to continue as long as France agrees to do the heavy lifting in that part of Africa which, in turn, will allow the US and UK to focus their respective efforts elsewhere in the continent and the world

• As the salafi-jihadi movement in Africa continues to grow, France will have to decide whether it wants to continue to intervene militarily in other parts of the continent. It stands to reason that should there be any flare-ups in other former French colonies in Africa, France will respond to continue to protect its citizens and interests abroad.



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