The bombing of the French embassy this week was somewhat of shock considering its location. Libya's capital of Tripoli has largely been spared the violence faced by other parts of the country. Although officially no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, it was only last week in which Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatened revenge against France as retribution for their military operations in Northern Mali. France has a long history of neo-colonial intervention on the continent among its former colonies. Typically, economic interest and the preservation of friendly regimes were the reasoning behind French intervention in the past. However this is changing.
The motivations behind the military operations in Mali are decidedly different than in the past, signaling a change of the French role in Francophone Africa. While the neo-colonial era of French military intervention might be over, this is not by any means a completely hands off approach. France instead is fighting against the spread of Islamist extremism and ungoverned space in which they could operate. As the Tripoli bombing demonstrated, new challenges await them.
France post-colonial military role in West and Central Africa has been extensive. The paternalistic attitude of towards its former African colonies certainly still exists in France. However, recent intervention in both Libya demonstrates the motivations have greatly changed. Unlike the past, French intervention in Mali was not driven by resources, economic interests, or protecting an illegitimate regime from a popular coup. Resources, economic interests, and even any real strategic importance of Mali geopolitically are almost non-existent in this case. There seems be a genuine interest in not letting the Malian state fail, and stopping the spread of Islamic fundamentalist armed groups from taking over more of the country, just as there was a genuine desire to stop Gaddafi from waging war in a hope to stop the bloodshed there.
For all intents and purposes, the French intervention in Mali was a last resort. An Islamist offensive threatened to push south prompting a Mali’s President, Dioncounda Traore, to appeal to France for help. It is also important to remember that the Salafist belief system that was imposed by the alliance of Islamist groups when they took territory over is foreign to Mali itself. Although an estimated 90% of Malians are Muslims, it traditionally has been very tolerant toward other religions. The imposition of strict religious law was extremely unpopular in areas taken by Islamist insurgents. This led to backlash by the population at large against these insurgents and tremendous support for the French intervention to drive them out of occupied areas. Even the leadership of AQIM fighting in Mali is foreign, being made up mostly of Algerians and Mauritanians.
It is right to give the impression that France’s new role in Africa is altruistic. There is no question that there are some in France who still hold onto the paternal ideas of neo-colonialism. President François Hollande was probably partially motivated to send a limited number of French troops to Mali in order to gain a boost in public opinion much like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy did in Libya. From a practical stand point, stability in areas of North and West Africa is necessary for France and the West in general. The containment of anti-Western, Islamist groups was the main purpose behind the operation. Perhaps the more telling indication of the French role in Francophone Africa is what it did not do. When President Francois Bozize, authoritarian leader of the Central African Republic (CAR), appealed to the French for help against domestic insurgency threatening his own rule, he did not receive the military intervention he had hoped for.