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France and Mali: Hollande’s Bush Moment

by BARRY LANDO

Paris.

As Colin Powell famously warned George H.W. Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, “if you break it, you own it.”

France is not responsible for “breaking” Mali. The country was already a West African basket case long before the French intervention.

But France, which enraged many Americans by refusing to participate in the invasion of Iraq, now finds itself stuck with the results of their own intervention.  And there’s no crazy glue in sight.

That’s what I wrote a couple of months ago after President Francois Hollande dispatched French troops to Mali.

The irony today is that not only is there no obvious solution to Mali’s plight, but Hollande himself is having enormous problems running his own deeply troubled country.

Back in January Hollande’s aides hoped that a forceful intervention in Mali would give the lie to the charge that he was a feeble, indecisive leader.

But now, in mid April, with 4,600 French troops in Mali, the magazine L’Express is running an abject photo of Holland on the cover, over the humiliating headline: “M. FAIBLE.” (Mister WEAK). Similar devastatingly mocking jibes fill the media—from all sides of the political spectrum.

Indeed, with Hollande confronting a major domestic political crisis, after his Budget Minister-in charge of collecting taxes–admitted to having stashed money in secret bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore, the president’s popularity is still plummeting (now about 20%).

It’s being driven ever lower by France’s abysmal economic situation,  mounting crime and racial tensions. With three of Hollande’s own ministers now publicly challenging the government’s economic program, the ineluctable conclusion is that no one’s really in charge.

Yet this is the same man who is supposedly leading the battle to save Mali from ruin.

When France intervened in January, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius vowed the action would be over in “a matter of weeks.”

Now in mid April, 4,600 French troops are still in the country, supported by about 6,000 soldiers from several African states. Led by the French, they’ve retaken most of the major population centers from the jihadists who had threatened to overrun the country. They’ve also pummeled rebel redoubts in the North, reportedly killing hundreds of radicals and destroying tons of equipment.

Yet the situation is still tense. Islamists who had faded into the villages and rugged mountains are still capable of deadly hit-and-run attacks. And the ethnic Tuaregs in the North, who began the rebellion, are still demanding autonomy or independence.

Hollande  is also out on a limb. Though he claimed he was acting to protect Europe from radical Islam spreading in Africa, he has received precious little support from his European allies. Nor—aside from some important intelligence and logistics support—has he received much real backing from the United States.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, no one is rushing to get involved in yet another quagmire.

Meanwhile the Mali adventure is costing France—whose budget is already in disarray– close to three million Euros a day—probably much more. By this summer, the cost will probably have risen to at least half a billion Euros…and counting.

Hollande’s predicament now is not that different from the one facing President Obama in Afghanistan: how to drastically decrease France’s involvement in Mali without making it look like France has cut and run, leaving an unseemly chaos in his wake.

The solution: France will turn over the mess in their former colony, as soon as possible, to a new “democratically-elected” Malian government.

Thus it was that Hollande dispatched Foreign Minister Fabius to Bamako to lay down his dictat to the major political actors:  presidential and legislative elections were to be held by July.

The rebel Tuaregs were supposed to lay down their arms, though they still occupy Kidal and a part of Northern Mali; a French reaction force would stay in place to ensure that “the terrorists” didn’t come back.

We imagine the plans also include a kind of George W. Bush “Mission Accomplished” moment: A beaming Hollande attending the inauguration of Mali’s new leaders. He salutes the sacrifice of the heroic French and African troops, vows undying support for the future of France’s former colony–and continues to withdraw French troops.

By the end of 2013 only 1000 French troops will be left to work with a UN Peacekeeping Force from other mainly African countries.

That’s the deal. The problem, according to many observers, is that attempting to hold meaningful–never mind democratic– elections by July is just a wishful figment of Hollande’s desperate imagination–a frail fig leaf for France.

Even if Mali were secure, the idea that it might be possible to organize a real campaign in a country twice the size of France, draw up lists of electors when at least 400,000 Malians from the north have fled south or to their African neighbors, is a chimera.

With no time for new political leaders or parties to organize and present themselves, the field is left to the same threadbare, corrupt politicians who presided over the country’s ruin and final collapse in 2012.

After that debacle, it turned out that what had once been trumpeted as a showcase for post-colonial government in Africa, was in fact a  “Potemkin” democracy—all façade, no substance.

Which will probably be the upshot of the elections scheduled for July (if they actually take place.)

The scenario after that: those 1,000 French troops, with 10,000 soldiers and police from the new U.N. force—many of them poorly equipped and trained—will somehow maintain order in Mali’s restive towns and cities and vast hinterlands, while the new government struggles to resolve the country’s huge problems, made even more desperate by the changing climate of the Sahel.

Bottom line: fifty years after it became independent, Mali has still to rely on its former colonial ruler to keep the country intact.

But after half a century, France, like the other once great powers, no longer has the appetite nor the resources to play a colonial role. Hollande, as we’ve noted, is having a hell of a time, just attempting to rule his own restive nation.

Nor for that matter does the United States have much in the way of state-building zeal these days. President Obama would much rather deal with terrorist threats through killer drones, than boots on the ground and massive aid programs.

Which means that imposing elections for July on Mali, though a flawed, cynical step, may be the only realistic way forward. It may at least get some kind of political process sputtering again.

And France and the rest of the world will provide some aid, some investment, some military training—and Mali and its peoples will almost certainly endure decades more of political turbulence and strife.

Their desperate situation will be mirrored in the turmoil, which may also last for decades, of failing states across the region, from Tunis to Libya to Egypt to Syria.

After all, the reverberations of the French Revolution, which took place in 1789, are still being felt in France to this day.

BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes who now lives in Paris. He can be reached at: barrylando@gmail.com or through his website.

BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes. He is the author of The Watchman’s File. He can be reached at: barrylando@gmail.com or through his website.

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