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French public backs Mali intervention, but for how long?

Experts say that while President Hollande's decision to send troops to Mali has been backed across the political spectrum, the public could sour if the campaign's initial successes don't last.

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Soldiers prepared a French jet at the Saint Dizier air base in eastern France on Sunday. French fighter jets bombed rebel targets in a major city in Mali's north Sunday, pounding the airport as well as training camps, warehouses, and buildings used by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists controlling the area, officials and residents said.

Laure-Anne Maucorps/French Army/AP

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Despite the suddenness of France's military involvement in Mali, President François Hollande's decision to send troops to the troubled African nation has been well received across the French political spectrum. French politicians from nearly all the country's parties have thus far supported the campaign, which has seen early successes in stopping the southward advance of Mali’s Al Qaeda-linked rebels who seized control of the country's north in the first half of last year.

But in authorizing a military assault in Mali, Mr. Hollande has also taken on a long-term political risk if France gets mired in a worsening conflict.

Hollande’s decision to move forward quickly, at the request of the Malian president, has shown the French leader’s ability to be bold and decisive, analysts say. He has successfully convinced the nation that the viability of the former French colony is crucial, not just as an ally of France but for neighboring countries in Africa and for the French people themselves. 

“On a domestic political level, it was a good move for Hollande. He’s got pretty much unanimous backing across the political spectrum,” says Susi Dennison, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Britain.

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But as the conflict proceeds and becomes more complex, Ms. Dennison says, more questions could emerge. “It does seem that one area where [Hollande] is slightly vulnerable to criticism at the moment is that it was something of a sudden decision, given that there have been months of planning for a different kind of intervention in Mali that was African-led.”

A 15-nation bloc of West African nations, called ECOWAS, was mandated by the United Nations Security Council to lead a mission in Mali, but it was unable to respond quickly to the advancement last week of rebels. So within a half day, French troops got a mission under way, to prevent the militants' encroachment on and potential takeover of the capital, Bamako. Hollande has said his country will stay in the battle “as long as necessary,” but that his aim is to support regional partners.

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Broad French support ...

A poll published Monday by the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop) found that 63 percent of those surveyed support the French intervention in Mali while 37 percent oppose it. By comparison, 55 percent of respondents in October 2001 supported the participation of France in the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, according to Ifop data.

France has deep ties to French-speaking Africa, where it maintained colonial authority until the middle of the 20th century. France was a colonial ruler of Mali until 1960. “It does have much stronger economic and strategic interests than the UK,” says Dennison. “The other side of [the] coin is that the perceived threat to France from the Islamist groups … are understood to be higher because of the networks that exist around Francophone countries in the region and extending into France.”

Jean-François Daguzan, deputy director of the think tank Foundation for Strategic Research in France, says the French public supports the intervention because it sees it as a mission designed to both help the Malian population and get rid of violent Islamist militants.

“What the public opinion sees in general is Taliban-like jihadis who fight traditional African Islam and who implement physical punishments and death penalty,” he says.

The right-wing opposition UMP party has made it clear that it supports the intervention. The UMP leader Jean-François Copé wrote Friday on Twitter: “I bring my support to the decision taken by François Hollande to send French troops to Mali.”

... with a caveat

Le Monde, France’s most prestigious newspaper, praised Hollande’s decision to send troops to Mali in a front-page column on Monday, but warned against a potential quagmire if the intervention were to last. “One knows how these military interventions begin,” the column read. “One never knows how they end. Or rather, one knows that a lot of them have turned out very badly.”

Mr. Daguzan says the current public support Hollande benefits from could shrink if the French military were to suffer heavy casualties or if Islamist militants were to retaliate with terrorist attacks on France’s soil. It's a scenario that is not unthinkable.

"Islamist groups based in the Maghreb have planned attacks on France in the past, and there is a risk of a terrorist attack in response to the intervention, now or at a later date,” says Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

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French forces have encountered stiff resistance, with rebels moving farther south on Monday despite French aerial bombings. France’s Defense minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, said today that the militants seized the village of Diabaly, in central Mali, "after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian Army that couldn't hold them back."

Despite the resistance, the French mission will likely see quick initial victories, says Mr. Gowan. “However, it will not be difficult for rebel forces to regroup and cause renewed instability. It is not clear that France can avoid a prolonged military deployment in Mali, even if it hopes that African troops can deploy to maintain order.”

This is especially true if the rebels are able to retaliate. Already, a spokesperson for one of the rebel factions said that France would pay for its actions.

"They should attack on the ground if they are men. We'll welcome them with open arms," Oumar Ould Hamaha told Europe 1 radio, as quoted by Reuters. "France has opened the gates of hell for all the French. She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia."

No other countries are expected to take such a bold stance as France. The United States has said it will share intelligence, while Britain has also promised support, though it said no British troops will join the fight.

Some early criticism

Criticism has emerged from some corners as some prominent politicians from both the right and left wings have started to publicly question the legitimacy of the military intervention. Far-left leader and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon called Hollande’s decision “disputable” on France Info radio Monday morning, arguing that he thought African countries, especially Algeria, should address Mali’s problems instead of France.

“Is there no army that has the ability [to intervene] in this zone?” Mr. Mélenchon asked. “Isn’t there a neighboring country that is named Algeria which has an army that is technically extremely advanced?”

Former right-wing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin also severely criticized the French intervention in a column Sunday in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, saying that France likely will have to fight militants alone, with no viable Malian Army at its side. “No, war is not France. It is time to finish with a decade of lost wars,” Mr. de Villepin wrote, referring to the Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya wars.

Hall Gardner, a professor and chair of international comparative politics at The American University of Paris, says the intervention in Mali is inconsistent with Hollande’s refusal last month to have French troops protect Central African Republic’s president, François Bozizé, from a rebel offensive.

“He totally contradicted himself because ... he said he was going to take France out of African policies, and particularly out of an interventionary mode, and he’s done exactly the opposite,” Mr. Gardner says.

• Bastien Inzaurralde reported from Paris for this story, and Sara Miller Llana reported from Mexico City.

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