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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.)
doubts hover over the willingness of Traoré's transitional government to
negotiate with the MNLA or, for that matter, negotiate the terms for new
elections. While the world's attention focuses on the north, one Western
sourly, "The problem is that very little is happening in Bamako."
Almost nothing has been done to set the terms or dates for new elections,
despite the repeated appeals of several political parties and associations in
Bamako. According to Le Nouvel Observateur, the
government seems to have "returned to the same weightless state" it
was in prior to the crisis.
over the government's fecklessness also bleed into the public's perception of
its capacity to protect citizens. The initial euphoria in northern Mali is
increasingly flecked with doubt. A journalist for Jeune Afrique reported in late February from the strategic northern city of Gao that "the explosions of
joy that greeted the French have since been replaced by questions, doubts, and
now fears." The pitched battles in late February between the French army and an al
Qaeda affiliate that calls itself the Movement for Unity and
Jihad in West Africa, which led to the destruction of the town's central
market, has only deepened these fears. As a local teacher noted, "The
jihadists are not far, and they haven't had their last word."
have those skeptics who doubt the stated motivations for France's intervention. For these observers, Françafrique's death
-- which, they note, rhymes with "France-à-fric," or "Cash to
France" -- is premature. Although it remains one of the globe's poorest countries, Mali is rich in minerals. In addition to its gold and uranium
reserves, Mali looks poised to become the continent's next Algeria, if only in
terms of crude oil reserves.
Although energy specialists warn that there are few concrete indications of such holdings
below the sands of northern Mali, other commentators believe
the mere potential of their existence, particularly in the Taoudeni basin, drives
France's geopolitical calculations. As Malian scholar Manthia Diawara, a
reluctant supporter of France's military intervention, recently wrote
in the French online journal Mediapart,
France is not only motivated by its post-colonial responsibilities, but also
has in mind "the petroleum and other minerals that may be below the Malian
desert. One could even say that it is 'business as usual' in Paris, where
Françafrique always trumped other concerns."
In late February, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that military forces
will begin their withdrawal from Mali in March. The announcement was widely
interpreted as a sign of the government's determination to avoid enlisement (quagmire) in Mali.
To be sure, France quite literally cannot afford such a predicament: The tab
for the intervention has grown from 70 million to 100 million euros since
early February. This is a significant sum for a country whose economy is at a
standstill and whose government has just announced it will exceed the 3 percent
deficit limit required by the European Union and admits -- campaign promises aside -- that
it will not bring down the level of unemployment. Just last week, however, French officials told the Associated Press that troops would likely remain in Mali until July.
voters will not tolerate an open-ended engagement, much less an effort at
nation-building in Bamako, while their own nation seems to be unraveling.
Leaders of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement are already
above the Élysée, waiting for their moment. One leading member, Pierre
Lellouche, now describes Mali as
"the new Afghanistan," while Henri de Raincourt, who was President Nicolas
Sarkozy's minister in charge of relations with Francophone Africa, slammed
Hollande's "profound ignorance of Africa."
the moment, Hollande is holding fast. Yet one wonders whether he will eventually
recognize himself in the concluding lines of Camus's story. The last line -- "In
this vast country he had loved so much, he was alone" -- might well serve
as the coda to France's engagement in Mali. The French title to the story,
"L'Hôte," can be translated
as either "The Guest" or "The Host." This etymological
ambiguity reflects the complex reality France confronts in its former colony.
Once the imperial host in this part of the world, France is now expected to
assume the role of guest. But whose guest and for how long? As Daru told his
guest: "I don't know."
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images