When it comes to humanitarian intervention, the French are the quiet achievers

For most of 2013, the attention of the international media, at least the corporate-controlled media, has been focused on the ongoing crisis in Syria, the continued American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the increasing tensions with China. All these issues are vitally important, and deserve the attention of the international community. The US has continued to use ‘humanitarian’ reasoning as a pretext to intervene either directly or indirectly in various countries in the Arabic-speaking and African worlds. The invocation of ‘humanitarian’ reasons, however flimsy or laughable, is convenient for disguising the predatory, plundering, imperialist interests that motivate these military invasions. For the moment, direct military intervention in Syria has been avoided, and American-supported efforts to cobble together international support for a military strike against Iran have so far been derailed. But one country has taken to humanitarian interventions with quiet enthusiasm; interventions that are motivated by economic and political interests that intend to shift the balance of power in Africa: France.

French President Francois Hollande made a lightning visit to the impoverished African nation the Central African Republic. French paratroopers were deployed to the former French colony in December 2013, ostensibly to restore law and order in an increasingly chaotic situation resulting from clashes between rival Muslim and Christian groups. Hollande, stopping over in the nation’s capital Bangui after attending the funeral for the late Nelson Mandela, made a speech thanking the services of French soldiers and commemorated the lives of those military personnel that had been killed. He justified the speedy intervention in the Central African Republic as dangerous but necessary to protect human life. In fact, he made the following remark;

France is not here in the Central African Republic out of any self-interest,” Mr Hollande said. “France has come to defend human dignity.

The notion that French ruling class policymakers are motivated by purely humanitarian considerations is preposterous in the extreme. France has maintained extensive economic and political interests in its former African colonies since the granting of formal independence in the 1960s. The ambitious programme of neo-colonialism, given the name ‘Francafrique’ by the French establishment, was quiescent in recent times but has witnessed a resurgence since 2008.

Francafrique refers to the network of political, economic and military relations that the French ruling class has maintained with the political authorities in the former African colonies. This ‘opaque conglomerate’ maintains friendly relations with African political clients that are amenable to French interests. While France formally withdrew from its African colonies, such as the Ivory Coast, it still exerts heavy political and economic influence in its former sphere of influence. The natural resources and exports of its African dependencies are funnelled into the coffers of the French bourgeoisie. France is the main customer of the Ivory Coast’s primary produce exports. Most of the citizens of the Ivory Coast, 70 percent in fact, work in or are dependent upon agricultural sector. If French interests are undermined or threatened in any way, France has the resources to intervene decisively and impose a political outcome suitable to its agenda – as it did in the Ivory Coast back in 2011.

In the 1990s, European integration became the main preoccupation of the French bourgeoisie, the latter rushing to penetrate the former Eastern Bloc countries, making investments, exploiting the cheap labour and focusing on absorbing the previously closed-off countries into the European capitalist network. As the much-vaunted European Union falls to pieces and is kept barely alive by massive transfusions of public money, the French ruling class looked to its former African possessions as an area where they could escalate their exploitative practices. Also throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Chinese have invested heavily in African countries, financing and carrying out projects, building infrastructure and increasing their influence. This ‘soft power’ has rattled the cages of the French imperialist bourgeoisie.

At the beginning of 2013, the French government of the ostensibly ‘socialist’ Francois Hollande took decisive military action in its former African colony of Mali. Roger Annis, a long-term Canadian activist and writer, has written extensive articles about the situation in Mali. In January 2013, Annis wrote that:

France, the former slave power of west Africa, has poured into Mali with a vengeance in a military attack launched on January 11. French warplanes are bombing towns and cities across the vast swath of northern Mali, a territory measuring some one thousand kilometres from south to north and east to west. French soldiers in armoured columns have launched a ground offensive, beginning with towns in the south of the northern territory, some 300 kilometres north and east of the Malian capital of Bamako.

The motivations of the French to commit to Mali, coming after the 2011 French intervention in the Ivory Coast, are not hard to discern. While the usual, tired and well-worn clichés of ‘Islamic terrorism’ and ‘defending human rights’ were trotted out to drum up public support for the Mali intervention, one can discover the calculations of the French imperialists by digging a little deeper. Maintaining access to and domination over the natural resources and riches of Africa for the transnational corporations is the important calculation motivating military interventions. As Roger Annis explains in his article regarding Mali:

West Africa is a region of great resource wealth, including gold, oil and uranium.

The uranium mines in neighbouring Niger and the uranium deposits in Mali are of particular interest to France, which generates 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy. Niger’s uranium mines are highly polluting and deeply resented by the population, including among the semi-nomadic Touareg people who reside in the mining regions. The French company Areva is presently constructing in Imouraren, Niger, what will become the second-largest uranium mine in the world.

Notwithstanding the fabulous wealth created by uranium mining, Niger is one of the poorest countries on Earth. As one European researcher puts it, “Uranium mining in Niger sustains light in France and darkness in Niger.”

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, where displaced Malians are subject to food insecurity and crippling poverty. Malnutrition in Mali has reached endemic proportions in some parts of the country. All the military fighting has disrupted farming and agricultural activity, and schoolchildren are reliant on food programs run by international aid agencies to guarantee their daily caloric intake. Still, 1.3 million people are in desperate need of food, and 200,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition, according to the aid agency CARE, the Cooperate for Assistance and Relief Everywhere.

Despite this pervasive poverty, the imperialist states have included Mali in their most important plans – the war on terror and militarisation of the African continent. As Roger Annis explained in his essay, back in 2005 the United States established the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative group, roping in eleven African states including Mali. The aim of this agency was to combine the military efforts of participating states in combating terrorism; but as the foreign policy experts Conn Hallinan and John Gershman explained in their examination of this issue back in 2006, the Sahara contains many mirages, one of them being ‘terrorism’, a pretext for military aid to governments that will use that military power to suppress domestic political opponents. In 2008, the work of the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative was absorbed into the United States Africa Command, Africom.

In December 2013, just under a year after the French intervention in Mali, turmoil and political instability returned to the country. Two French journalists, working for Radio France Internationale, (RFI), were killed after being abducted by unidentified assailants. They were kidnapped in an area of Northern Mali where French troops have maintained a heavy presence. France has responded by moving even more troops from the relative safety of southern Mali into the regions of the north where the instability has flared.

No-one takes any solace or pleasure in the kidnapping and murder of journalists. Such abductions only provide grist to the mill for imperialist propaganda outlets to tarnish their opponents as remorseless killers, and further whip up national chauvinist support for overseas wars. However, the main politically criminal behaviour in the Mali war has been performed by the French political and military establishment.

This latest upsurge of French military activity, disguised as another episode in the never-ending ‘war on terror’, is motivated by French imperial designs in Africa, protecting and extending access to raw materials, strategic resources and increasing markets at a time of deepening economic crisis in Europe itself. The worn-out cliché of fighting ‘Islamist extremism’ is trotted out at every turn to justify further resource wars in Africa. The plight of Mali is not the responsibility of Islamist guerrillas; the culpability of the criminal war in Mali rests squarely on the shoulders of the French ruling class. The latter has intensified its scramble for resources and markets, and its push to project its military and economic power is reframed as a part of the global ‘war on terrorism.’ The humanitarian pretext serves to neutralise anti-war sentiment and mobilise public opinion in favour of resource wars.


The Tuareg people, a semi-nomadic Berber group, have staged a number of nationalist uprisings throughout the 20th century. Their homeland extends across northern Mali and West Africa. The Tuareg are the main, Muslim-majority group in the north of Mali, and they inhabit parts of Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The French conquered large swathes of Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including what is today Mali. The Tuareg were brutally suppressed, and after the formal declaration of independence of Mali in 1960, the Tuareg’s grievances remained unresolved. As Patrick Cockburn states in his article on the Mali crisis, the struggle of the Tuareg people for self-determination is at the heart of the political and economic instability in Mali. Tuareg nationalism, remaining unfulfilled, continues to simmer beneath the surface and has erupted into open rebellion a number of times since 1960.

The Tuareg Area (courtesy of en.wikipedia)
The Tuareg Area (courtesy of en.wikipedia)

Through forced sedenterisation, and the repressive policies of the Malian state backed by the French, the Tuareg have become part of the urban workforce, migrating to other parts of Africa in search of work. Some still practice pastoralism, and the Tuareg have maintained their dominant presence in northern Mali. The Tuareg organised the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to fight for autonomy and independence. This political and military movement has been a thorn in the side of the Malian state. The Malian military forces have severely repressed all attempts by the Tuareg to establish an independent state. The MNLA fights until today for a thorough reform of the corrupt and dictatorial Malian state, an end to military brutality, and greater powers of self-governance.

In early 2012, the MNLA, reinforced by Tuaregs fleeing from the Libyan imbroglio, launched a series of offensives against the Malian military. The Tuaregs from Libya, having fought in the ranks of the Libyan army of Qadhafi, brought their military training, expertise and weapons into northern Mali. The Malian government, stung by a string of losses, began to totter. A group of Malian military officers, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, ousted the president and established an open military dictatorship. The coup plotters justified their actions on the basis that they could deal effectively with the growing Tuareg insurgency. It is worthwhile to note that Sanogo, the coup leader, was trained in the United States.

From March 2012, the MNLA posed a serious threat to the fragile Malian state. The Malian government forces were expelled from large portions of northern Mali. At this point, the hardline Islamist guerrilla groups enter the fray; the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Ansar Dine. These militias added the more orthodox Salafist objectives to the northern Mali conflict, implementing their version of strict Sharia in the areas they conquered. The MNLA was ousted as the Islamist guerrillas quickly reoriented the uprising from purely political, economic and social goals into a religiously-dominated project. Stories about cultural repression, the demolition of Sufi mosques deemed unacceptable by the Salafist-oriented groups, the imposition of social controls and the attacks on architectural monuments and shrines by Ansar Dine militants provided a public relations bonanza for the French ruling class to obtain public support for another military intervention.

It should be noted that during the entire mini-civil-war between the MNLA and the Islamist guerrillas throughout the second half of 2012, the French government and military did nothing. As the Islamist surge began to tighten its grip on the capital city, Bamako, and the Malian government was on the brink of total collapse, only then did the French decide to militarily intervene. Operation Serval, the name of the French operation in Mali, began in January 2013 and continues until today. It appears that defending human dignity does not factor into political calculations until French interests are directly threatened.

The standard clichés were deployed by French President Hollande to portray the French invasion in humanitarian terms. Only a few days after the initial incursion in January 2013, Hollande stated that;

France is a liberating force, living up to its ethics, its values. It has no material interests in Mali. There are no economic or political calculations involved (in explaining its military intervention). It is acting uniquely in the service of peace.

Rob Prince, in an extensive article about the Mali intervention published in Foreign Policy in Focus noted:

Brings a tear to my eyes to know that its military intervention in Mali is purely humanitarian, in solidarity with the Malian people with no ulterior motive! Perhaps in the next world, but not in this one!

He later elaborates the true nature of France’s role in Africa:

Indeed quite the contrary to Hollande’s assertion can be argued: that in Africa, France has been an oppressive force, one that in this case and always puts its self-interests (in the case of Africa for raw materials, strategic minerals, uranium, oil, natural gas) before any humanitarian consideration and will stop at nothing – and has stopped at nothing – to achieve its goals.

Roger Annis, the Canadian writer, socialist and expert on Mali, wrote in his article in relation to the public relations campaign regarding the Mali invasion;

It is true that Islamic fundamentalists have ruled northern Mali with an iron hand since taking over in 2012. But the reasons for this latest intervention lie in the determination of the world’s imperial powers to keep the human and natural resources of poor regions of the world as preserves for capitalist profits. West Africa is a region of great resource wealth, including gold, oil and uranium.

In fact, the Sahara region, and West Africa, represent a vast untapped cornucopia of natural resources. The French bourgeoisie are angling to acquire the riches of the north African region as Europe sinks further into economic crisis and disarray. As Rob Prince explained in his article:

For France, the Sahara as a whole is nothing short of a strategic gold mine, both in terms of the known wealth the region possesses (uranium, oil, gold for starters) and what might yet to be discovered. Mali’s strategic potential today lays more in future resources wealth, although gold is mined in the country’s northern regions. If the mineral/strategic resource wealth of its neighbors is any indication, northern Mali is rich in similar potential. Neighboring Niger (to Mali’s east) is one of France’s main sources of uranium for its powerful nuclear industries.

The first step in disentangling ourselves from overseas imperialist adventures is recognising the false pretence of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and its misrepresentation of reality. The mirage of ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ is used to disguise the predatory ambitions of imperialist powers to reassert their control and domination of strategic markets and resources. To portray an imperialist conquest as a war of liberation is nothing but a grotesque deception. On Bastille Day 2013, the military led the annual parade of celebration and commemoration for the French revolution. The current French republic maintains the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ which encapsulates the motivating spirit of the original French revolution.

In 2013, on Bastille Day, the troops from 13 African countries that participated alongside the French military in the Mali invasion, marched down the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris, accompanied by flyovers by military aircraft and giant military vehicles loaded with land-to-air defence systems. The traditional celebration of liberty and equality was turned into a triumphal display of French imperial might, saying to the world “we won in Mali”.

This grotesque perversion was challenged by at least one French voice – the non-government group Survie, whose representatives stated that France has adopted a self-proclaimed role of gendarme in Africa, and in particular in Mali. The New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France also denounced the military intervention in Mali.

The French invasion of Mali is turning out to be trap; a quagmire from which the French military cannot quickly extricate itself. The Mali war lingers on, and the natural resources of that country will be exploited by the French ruling elite, while the Malian people continue to live in poverty. Horace Campbell, professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University stated in his article on France, the US and the Mali intervention that the Tuaregs have genuine grievances against the corrupt Malian state. Until this question of self-determination and economic justice is resolved, Mali will continue to be unstable and any foreign intervention will have precarious and fragile results. Imperialist invasion only worsens Mali’s problems.

3 thoughts on “When it comes to humanitarian intervention, the French are the quiet achievers

  1. It’s hilarious, in a tragi-comic kind of way, when politicians speak of humanitarian motivations when both they and the hearer know this not to be the case.

    Nothing new under the sun. Countries act on the basis of their interests. The main difference between western intervention on the one hand, and Chinese and Russian intervention on the other, is that the former governments feel compelled to justify their intervention in humanitarian terms, in order to (try to) pre-empt criticism by domestic human rights and other humanitarian groups. The Chinese and Russian governments are not as bound by the need to justify their actions to internal critics.

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