Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From a ‘Normal’ to a Belligerent President

Rafales in action
François Hollande who, eight months ago, took over as the President of the French Republic from the flamboyant and hyperactive Sarkozy, is often described as ‘Mr. Normal’.
Plantu, a famous cartoonist working for the daily Le Monde always draws Hollande driving a Deux-Chevaux, the French Nano of the 1960/70s.
During his tenure as the Socialist Party’s First Secretary, Hollande had learned to be a ‘grey’ man, a man without strong opinions. He did not have other choices, with the different factions and ‘currents’ constantly threatening to pull apart the Party.
Were these qualities required to govern France which, since the time of the Gaullish tribes, is the ungovernable country par excellence (like India in fact). But is ‘normal’ enough to govern a country? It can often be synonymous with ‘indecision’.
Take Hollande’s African policy. Last October, Hollande declared in Dakar: “The time of Françafrique is gone; there is France and there is Africa; there is a partnership between France and Africa, our relations are based on respect, transparency and solidarity”.
The French President explained that he wanted to bring to a close the period “of the influence-networks in the bilateral relations between Paris and its former colonies, when politics and business are mixed”. He affirmed: “The ‘emissaries’, the in-betweens, the backdoor cooking will from now on, find a closed door at the Elysée Palace as well as in the ministries”.
Observers deducted that the French President would follow a mild ‘normal’, non-interventionist policy in Africa and Paris would not militarily intervene in conflicts as Sarkozy had in Libya or in Ivory Coast.
But things have suddenly changed. As France was busy with L’Affaire Depardieu and the debate over the gay marriage, Hollande suddenly became a chef de guerre, a Commander-in-Chief.
In a televised address, the President decided to personally inform his countrymen of his decision to go to war: “I, in the name of France, answered the President of Mali’s request …French armed forces lent support to units of the Malian army to fight against terrorists.” He added: “This operation will last as long as needed.”
Foreign Policy Magazine admits: “Mr. Hollande's decision to dispatch soldiers to Mali marks a shift in France's strategy. Paris had earlier said it wouldn't send troops to Mali, though it was ready to help coordinate a multilateral intervention in the country.”
What triggered this sudden volte-face?
A day earlier, Le Monde had reported: “[For the Malian government], this is the moment of truth in their confrontation with the military groups and [the situation] is not encouraging for the regular Malian Army which suffered a first defeat by losing control of the town of Konna.”
Though the regular forces continued to send reinforcements to the important base of Sevare, near Mopti, observers believed that the Islamists’ advance towards the south and more importantly to the capital Bamako, could not be stopped. 
President Hollande said his decision had no other objective than the fight against terrorism. Through Operation Serval (the name of a tiger-cat of the desert), France did not intend to defend any particular interests, stated Hollande, adding that the French military intervention was limited to the support to the Malian forces, while expecting a swift intervention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Mali’s conflict.
There is no doubt that Mali faces an Islamic threat. Three main groups are present on the Malian scene. First, the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat which was started in the 1990s by radical Algerians. The group, based in north Mali, has in the past kidnapped several westerners working in the sub-Saharan Sahel zone.
The second group is the Ansar Dine ('Defenders of the Faith' in Arabic). It was started by the Tuareg commander Iyad Ag Ghaly in the 1990s. With the help of the AQIM, Ansar Dine took the towns of Kidal and Timbuktu, where Ghaly made triumphant entries. In Timbuktu, the Tuaregs were chased away and women were ordered to wear the purdah. Its main demand is the strict implementation of the sharia.
The last group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), advocates ‘holy war’. In June, the MUJAO seized the northeastern town of Gao. It appears that the first French airstrikes forced the MUJAO insurgents to leave Gao. The MUJAO is also on the UN list of Al Qaeda affiliated groups; three Algerians and one French national are said to have been abducted by its members.
Surprisingly, the French operation has the support of China. Hong Lei, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesman declared: "China condemns the latest military operation by Mali's anti-government forces and notices that related countries and regional organizations, at the request of the Malian government, dispatched ground forces and military airplanes to strike against rebel forces …China has always supported the Malian government's efforts to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Xinhua explained that these groups have “vowed to impose an extremist version of Muslim Sharia law throughout Mali.”
While Beijing violently condemns the Western intervention in Syria, in this case, China clearly does not object to the French action.
President Hollande’s decision has been more or less unanimously welcomed in France. While political parties are tearing each other apart on the subject of ‘gay’ marriage, all agreed that France had to act in Mali. Opposition leaders belonging to Sarkozy’s UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), François Copé and François Fillon immediately supported the operation. The former Prime Minister declared that “fight against terrorism demands that the nation be united, beyond all political differences.”
The centrist Jean-Louis Borloo, President of UDI (Union of Democrats and Independents) spoke of the ‘spirit of solidarity’.
An important collateral is that it has shown Hollande in a new light: that of a decisive leader. One of his collaborators said: “He is the President, the Head of the Republic and the Chief of the Army”.
Many believe that it is a turning point in Hollande’s 5-year term.
The fact that on the same day France sent commandos into Somalia to rescue an intelligence officer held by an al Qaeda-linked group since 2009 was another proof that Hollande is a new man. Though the ‘special operation’ in Somalia was a flop, the French agent was killed by his captors and one (or two) French commandos also lost their lives, at least Hollande tried. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was of course quick to declare that both operations were not connected.
As The New York Times put it: “The sudden French military intervention in Mali …have displayed Mr. Hollande in a more somber, decisive light that could represent a turning point for his presidency. The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young soldiers into battle.”
India should carefully watch the operations, not only because four Rafale fighter jets, flying from their base in France, were used to destroy rebel training camps and logistics depots in Gao, but also because it demonstrates that a ‘normal’ head of the State, should the conditions require it, takes swift decisions and implements them in national interests.
The New York Times says that François Hollande “has regularly been criticized as indecisive, even complacent. But the events of the last few days will go some way toward changing his image, as Mr. Hollande has moved swiftly to use the French military in Mali and Somalia.”
Will leaders in India emulate their French colleagues?
It does not mean that the battle against terrorism is won, far from it, but there are time when something needs to be done.

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