21 Jan 2013

France, The New Hero Of Africa?

By Charles McPhedran
As the unrest in Algeria and Mali continues, Paris is telling other western powers to stay out of its affairs. Does Francois Hollande's intervention in Mali mark a new era for France's relationship with Africa, asks Charles McPhedran

The end of a week of bloody chaos in northern Africa brought with it few certainties. Yet, through the miasma of Mauritanian news agencies and Algerian state television, you can discern several clear facts.

Firstly: The number of dead hostages at that now infamous gas plant in Algeria just kept rising.

And secondly: The man thought to have masterminded Wednesday's hostage grab at In Amenas is Moktar Belmokhtar. He again surfaced on Sunday. In a recording obtained by Mauritanian website Saharan Media Agency Belmokhtar declared himself willing to talk — under certain conditions.

"We are ready to negotiate with Western countries and the regime in Algeria provided they stop the aggression and the bombing of Mali's Muslim people, especially those of Asawad (Northern Mali), and respect its desire to impose sharia on its territory," he said.

Yet, in practice, Belmokhtar's actions have pushed Algiers further into Paris' arms.

It is now likely that Algeria will up support for French intervention in Mali. Paris is doing everything it can to get Algeria's leaders on side. As Washington and London criticised the Algerian army's decision to keep stumm over the number of casualties and details of its anti-terrorist operation at In Amenas, the Elysée did its best to "walk on egg shells" as one French magazine put it over the weekend.

After all the criticism over its backing of dictators in Tunisia and Libya before the Arab Spring, France is trying to remake itself as a more cuddly, culturally sensitive hegemon in North and West Africa.

French interior minister Manuel Valls, tasked with French counter-terrorism efforts, was sent out to do media late last week. Valls effectively told leaders like David Cameron to put a sock in it:

"When you're confronted with terrorism, especially given that we are fighting it together, I'd appeal for prudence when it comes to comments or criticism," Valls said, adding that Algeria had suffered many thousands of deaths in its secular/Islamist civil war in the 1990s.

That civil war was scarcely bloodier than Algeria's fight for independence against the French. The 1960s anti-colonial struggle against the French army and pieds noirs left grim memories. And only now, after the horrors of In Amenas, can Algeria declare full-throated backing for the French operation in Mali.

Before last week, as Algeria's El Watan wrote on the weekend, Algiers said it was against any French intervention in Mali. The biggest North African nation warned that an intervention could further destabilise West Africa's Sahara and Sahel regions.

Algier's public logic was simple. It reasoned that NATO's removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was one of the factors that provoked a political meltdown in Mali last year. That was when — furious at military defeats in the north — Mali's army overthrew the nation's democratic government in Bamako.

And Algeria was more sympathetic to Ansar Dine, considered the most moderate of the jihadist factions in northern Mali, than Western governments. Paris and Berlin have always refused any negotiations with the jihadists in Northern Mali.

Late last year, it even appeared that Algeria could even successfully mediate an end to the conflict between the Malian military junta in Bamako and jihadists, led by Ansar Al Dine.

And, as Slate Afrique noted over the weekend, there have been persistent rumours of Algerians supplying petrol to jihadists before they seized several key towns in northern Mali last year.

But at the same time, Algerian media is claiming, Algeria has quietly indicated support for a French intervention over the past 12 months. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the septuagenarian veteran who has run Algeria since 1999, privately gave the green light to François Hollande in December, reported Dernières Nouvelles d'Algérie on Sunday.

Moreover, Bouteflika may have okayed France's war in Mali even earlier, claimed the Francophone Algerian paper, citing comments made by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius after a meeting with Bouteflika in July last year.

But the double game that Algeria was playing came to an end at the beginning of January. As the world recovered from its New Year hangover, Ansar Dine went back on its offer to restore peace in Mali's north. Ansar joined AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), another Al-Qaeda splinter group as they pushed south towards Mali's capital Bamako.

It was that jihadist offensive that made Paris fire up the jeeps and launch the intervention. Paris' intervention in Mali came despite its pledge not to interfere in African affairs any more.

Indeed, Hollande has already proclaimed his determination not to get involved in shaky Francophone nations in recent weeks. Hollande promised to keep out of the travails of pro-Paris president François Bozizé in the Central African Republic last month.

As rebels marched on the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, in late December, Bozizé pleaded with his namesake for aid. But Hollande remained resolute. "If we are present, it's to protect our citizens and our interests, and not to get involved in the affairs of another country in any way," the French president announced. "That era is over."

All the same, some observers in the Central African Republic claim Hollande ordered his allies in Chad to stop rebels from reaching Bangui.

France's involvement in Africa has been cloak and dagger for decades. As Stephen Smith, the former Africa editor of Le Monde wrote in a 2010 essay for the London Review of Books, French presidents have typically had two sets of African advisors — one for official state business and the other to superintend France's network of regional leaders.

It is this latter category that masterminded a system of kickbacks, money laundering and offshoring that have proved lucrative both for France's leaders and for African dictators.

This week France's president has become an African hero by deploying troops to Mali, where many fear an Islamist takeover. Yet it is too soon to judge whether François Hollande's intervention in Mali marks a new start for France's relationship with Africa. And with Algerian president Bouteflika facing rising criticism over his decision to stay silent over the hostage crisis while praising the performance of the country's football team, France's attempts to draw closer to the Algerian leader again may tarnish the sheen it has regained in Mali this week.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

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Posted Monday, January 21, 2013 - 21:09

It is interesting to note how, in so many articles on Algeria, journalists forget how Algeria's Islamic population waged a ten year war against a repressive US and French backed military regime. In fact, this western backed regime is probably one of the most repressive the African continent has witnessed, including the continent's history of murderous colonialist regimes.

It is also curious to note how sensitive "western" audiences are not permitted reference to how the deadly post-colonial Algerian civil wars started, or how French and US backed "Algerian armed forces" crushed the "Islamists" after they won a fair election in 1991.

It is also forgotten how this 1991 election brought about a 2/3 majority for the "Islamists" in Algeria's parliament.

There is definitely something about a 2/3 Muslim majority which the "West" finds undemocratic wherever in the world Muslims achieve a democratic victory.

Typical of western hypocrisy, it is okay for France, Britain and the USA to profiteer from their client state, robbing Algiers of more than 50% of it's GDP, but that a 2/3 majority of Algiers should be considered "terrorists" for objecting to the systematic theft of their nation's wealth, should clearly indicate exactly where we, the "West", really stands on these issues.

So far as Africa is concerned, France's Hollande is nothing but another colonial dictator.

Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 17:03

Rockjaw said "There is definitely something about a 2/3 Muslim majority which the “West” finds undemocratic wherever in the world Muslims achieve a democratic victory."
How can you have a democracy where women are treated worse than cattle?
Where a woman can be stoned to death for adultery?
Where a thief's hand can be cut off without a proper trial?
Where apostasy is an automatic death sentence?
Where children have explosives strapped to them in the name of god?
Islam is a cruel and repressive religion. People will vote how they are told by the Imans.

Rockjaw, please point out one example of a stable, functioning islamic democracy.
Sure global capitalism is unfair - 50% of Australia's wealth probably gets shipped overseas as well. But we don't murder people who don't believe in god.

Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 17:08


Informative article. Another example of the familiar pattern of counter-productive Western foreign policy. I wonder how long French intervention will last in North Africa before the inevitable political and military debacle.


Agreed, I doubt if Western strategists really want democracy in North Africa, the 'wrong' people always seem to get into government.

Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 17:09


Informative article. Another example of the familiar pattern of counter-productive Western foreign policy. I wonder how long French intervention will last in North Africa before the inevitable political and military debacle.


Agreed, I doubt if Western strategists really want democracy in North Africa, the 'wrong' people always seem to get into government.

Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 04:17

"....Rockjaw, please point out one example of a stable, functioning islamic democracy..."

Please define an "Islamic Democracy". This is a misnomer. Do you mean democracies like Turkey?

Or do you mean secular autocracies mistakenly thought to be Muslim states, like "Western approved autocracy" Saudi Arabia or Indonesia.

Or are you talking about stable first world Muslim countries like Malaysia?

What about Muslim women in Israel? They have less rights than cattle too. How "democratic" and "stable" do you think they feel their country is? More importantly, who, in the whole of the "democratic western world" gives a toss for their rights?

Stoning is a lot less common than "legitimate" "legal" waterboarding practiced in the "democratic" west.

Worse than amputation is when, during 2012, Pres. Obama claimed the authority to assasinate any US citizen, anywhere in the world, without due process, without the obligation to observe international laws, and then he proceeded to demonstrate exactly how that alleged authority was excercised. None of the critics of Islam got bent out of shape about that.

Apostasy was only practiced during medieval times, and was less prevalent than witch hunts and inquisitions. It was also far less prevalent than the rather more recent Secular Socialist holocausts committed in the USSR where an estimated 60 million people were murdered.

"Secular" "democratic" England caused millions of deaths throughout Asia and Africa.

"Democratic" and "Secular" France caused a minimum estimated 15 million deaths in Central Africa alone, and that is during recent modern times. Modern "secular democracies" have caused a whole heap more atrocities than the total of all the deaths caused by "Muslim" states throughout history by whatever cause.

Face it, when it comes to mass murder, theft and general political immorality, the "democratic western world" takes first prize.