For now, France’s Socialist government has grabbed back the political momentum it lost at home — in West Africa. President Francois Hollande, who until a fortnight ago looked more like Angela Merkel’s punching bag than Europe’s top military leader, had his "victory" moment in Timbuktu on Saturday.
But it would be premature to call this Malian war won. French soldiers must now maintain control over Northern Mali for many months before a West African force can push jihadists out of their desert redoubts in the Sahara.
And it will take many months. Long before Hollande launched his surprise attack in January, sources in both Brussels and Berlin were insisting that both money and extensive training would be needed to make an African force viable. It is this force that Paris wants to lead desert operations against the jihadists.
But in the present, many of the biggest contributors to the West African force in Mali lack even the most basic familiarity with the desert. Nigeria, West Africa’s most populous nation, is likely to spearhead the African force. But Nigerian troops have anti-separatist experience above all in the Niger Delta — an environment with few similarities to northern Mali.
Moreover, there is little sign that other European powers are prepared to speed up training of African troops. Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé criticised European inaction on Monday.
"Europe has been useless throughout this whole affair in Mali — full stop!" the conservative raged in the pages of Le Monde.
Those remarks reflect nervousness over the depth of support for the war in France. At home, there is doubt that the French are committed to "staying the course" for months in Mali. And that, despite the euphoric reception given to Hollande’s war so far.
In an analysis overnight, French conservative paper Le Figaro — the Parisian daily with the best military contacts — tempered expectations of a quick victory over the jihadists in the north.
"Unfortunately … France has still not ‘paid its quotient of blood’ to Mali, a notion that also carries with it heavy implications for France’s relationship to Africa," the paper opined.
The reason that defence analysts and even the French President are so certain that the conflict will endure can be traced back to a little noted feature of the war.
Francois Hollande’s office has repeatedly underscored the battle readiness of jihadist forces in Mali: "What has really struck us, is the up-to-dateness of their equipment, their training, and their ability to make use of that," sources close to Hollande told Agence France Presse.
Much been written about the tribute the war in Libya rendered to the conflict in Mali. Analysts have emphasised the effects of weapons taken from Muammar Gaddafi on the separatist struggle in Northern Mali — and the soldiers who swept from Libya to Mali.
Still, French spies have long preferred a different explanation for jihadist military strength.
In a series of interviews accorded to French investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné last year, French intelligence blamed one country, in particular, for financing a "terrorist haven" in northern Mali: Qatar.
"According to intelligence gathered by DRM (the Directorate of Military Intelligence), Tuareg insurgents from the MNLA (secular and pro-independence), and the [Islamists] from Ansar al Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa have received Qatari aid in dollars," an Algerian paper quoted the weekly — which doesn’t publish online — as having reported.
Qatar denies those claims. The emirate’s government blames "brother nations" for spreading "maliciously intentioned" rumours about its involvement in Mali. The emirate says it wants to lead peace negotiations to secure a peace agreement there.
All the same, French experts claim that Qatar harbours energy interests in Mali. Geographer Mehdi Lazar thinks the emirate wants to exploit Malian gas reserves.
"If Qatar had good relations with the leaders of an Islamic state in northern Mali, it could also exploit the [region’s] geology, which is rich in gold and uranium and has potential gas and oil [deposits]," he wrote.
Indeed, there are growing signs that Paris is worried about the increasingly prominent role Qatar — the home of Al-Jazeera — is playing in North Africa and Europe.
The start of the conflict in Mali coincided with Hollande’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. Hollande, officials told Le Figaro, wanted to push for a strategic realignment in the Gulf — away from Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and towards the United Arab Emirates, which does not.
And, as another round of rumours about Qatar’s involvement in Mali circulated in Francophone media last week, French football journalists published unrelated claims about FIFA lobbying — which happened to also involve Qatar.
Bayern Munich’s future trainer Pep Guardiola received up to 12 million Euros to spruik for the emirate when it was bidding to host the World Cup, wrote Die Welt last week.
The revelation once again shows that the FIFA’s decision to award the World Cup to the emirate "stinks to high heaven", opines the German daily. The 2010 FIFA deliberations were closer to a "bazaar" than a contest, Die Welt asserts.
Ten days before the deliberations, the Hamburg-based daily says, Qatar’s crown prince dined with Nicolas Sarkozy and UEFA president Michel Platini. Before the dinner, Platini was a Qatar opponent; afterwards, he was a supporter.
"The fact that his [Platini’s] son got a job at Qatar Sports Investment right after that was maybe a coincidence. Or maybe not." Die Welt says.
Regardless, the anecdote proves that back in Sarko’s day, Qatar’s royal family were great mates of the French president. Yet only a couple of years later, Francois Hollande has effectively declared them enemies of the Republic.
So which president got the emirate right? As is so often the case in Paris, the answer to that question is more nebulous than the Seine in January.
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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