In 1957, the French-Algerian philosopher and journalist Albert Camus published a short story called "The Guest." The tale is situated in the midst of the Algerian war of independence -- a war that reduced Camus, who had long sought to square the circle of France's tortured presence in Algeria, to a pained silence. In a dozen and a half tersely written pages, Camus sets the stage not just for the tragedy unfolding then in Algeria, but also the predicament France faces today in Mali. In both cases, and for similar reasons, there are no easy answers, no obvious allies, and no clear exits.
"The Guest" takes place in Algeria's harsh interior, where a French-Algerian, or pied noir, named Daru is given responsibility for an Arab prisoner who stands accused of murder. As night descends, the two men exchange barely a dozen words. When Daru asks the prisoner whether he is sorry to have killed a man, the Arab does not answer. Equally inadequate is Daru's answer to the Arab's question about what will happen to him next: "I don't know," he says twice.
Conflicted about what he should do with the prisoner, Daru leads him to the edge of the plateau the following morning. Go east, he says, and you will reach the town of Tinguit, where the police are waiting; go south and "you'll find pastures and the first nomads. They will welcome you and give you shelter." He then watches in despair as the Arab sets off in the direction of Tinguit. Daru's despair only deepens when he returns to the classroom where he works and finds a message scrawled on the blackboard: "You turned in our brother. You will pay."
South of Daru's plateau in Algeria lies Adrar des Ifoghas, the lunar redoubt in northern Mali where the French military has now pushed the Islamist militants who, just two months ago, were poised to take the Malian capital, Bamako. Like Daru, who couldn't help but play the role of gendarme, it appears that France has inherited responsibility for securing Mali -- a development that is more than a little ironic. After all, it was only last October that French President François Hollande declared the era of Françafrique dead: "There is France, and there is Africa," he explained matter-of-factly during a state visit to Senegal.
Hollande's insistence that France and Africa have begun a new phase as equals and that France "has no other goal than to stop terrorism" seems, in part, borne out by events. The African Union, hardly a front for French neocolonialism, encouraged and applauded France's intervention. As Thomas Boni Yayi, the African Union's outgoing chairman confessed, the offensive was something "we should have done a long time ago to defend a member country." Moreover, the popular explosions of joy and relief in Bamako and some of Mali's northern cities liberated by the French are neither feigned nor fickle.
In addition, Hollande has to his credit made haste slowly in Mali. Vincent Jauvert, a defense writer for Le Nouvel Observateur, recently revealed a remarkable exchange of letters from January between Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, and Hollande. When Traoré sent a dramatic appeal for Hollande to send the French cavalry, the Élysée balked at the letter's wording. Traoré's open-ended request for "military intervention" smacked of the earlier Françafrique era. And so, like a lycée student told to revise his assignment, Traoré was asked to send a second letter in which he instead asked for more limited "air support."
But this, in turn, revealed France's predicament. Just days after Traoré sent the corrected letter, Hollande and his military advisors reached the conclusion that airstrikes alone were inadequate to stop the jihadi advance. As a result, by sending 4,000 troops to Mali, France found itself in the awkward position of violating the very letter it had asked Traoré to write. This underscored, of course, the volatility of events that Paris could not anticipate, much less fully master. But it also revealed the fickle nature of alliances in Mali -- and the startling fact that, like Camus's Daru, France is very much alone.
France's current alignment with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is fraught with complications, not least because the Arab-Berber nomads were allied with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb less than six months ago. But for the moment at least, the success of France's campaign in the northern reaches of the Malian desert remains utterly dependent on Tuareg cooperation. More troublingly still, the tribesmen insist on serving as the sole interlocutor for French forces in the liberated north, frustrating France's efforts to hand responsibility of the operation over to government forces. (Tellingly, the MNLA refuses to negotiate or coordinate with the Malian army, but insists on speaking exclusively with the French.)