The bodies of two French journalists murdered in Mali were flown back to France this week – signalling a macabre blowback for President Francois Hollande and his interventionist military policy in Africa.
Hollande and other senior French government figures were at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, to pay respects as the coffins of the two journalists arrived amid a somber mood of national mourning.
Ghislaine DuPont (57) and her 55-year-old colleague Claude Verlon were senior correspondents for national broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI). They were kidnapped last Saturday by armed men while on assignment in the northern Malian town of Kidal. Their bodies were later recovered that same day with multiple-bullet wounds, only 12 kilometers from they were first abducted.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said grimly that the pair had been “assassinated in cold blood”.
The attendance of Hollande and his ministers at the solemn repatriation of the two journalists’ remains contrasted with joyous scenes only last week when the French president greeted the arrival in Paris of four French former hostages. The four had been released after nearly three years held in captivity in Niger, which borders Mali to the east – both countries are former French colonies.
The French government denies that it paid a ransom of $26 million to secure the release of the hostages. But there are strong suspicions that the French authorities did indeed facilitate a secret payment for the men’s freedom, along with their employer, the French nuclear energy company, Areva…
There is no evidence that the kidnappers of the two journalists in Mali were trying to capitalize on a similar ransom deal. The rapid way in which they were murdered suggests not.
But the linkage is that Hollande’s government is deeply worried about the political repercussions of its military intervention in Africa, adding to his already floundering record on domestic economic concerns.
Recent opinion polls show that the Socialist Party president has the lowest popularity among any modern French leader, even outperforming his predecessor, the impish Nicolas Sarkozy, for incurring the public’s wrath. “France unites against Hollande,” said a recent headline in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
Hollande came to power in 2012, promising to fix the economy and languishing unemployment. On all scores he has failed miserably, with French economic and social conditions deteriorating even further since he came to office in May 2012.
Hollande’s dramatic intervention in Mali in January this year to “defeat terrorism” looked like the hapless leader’s only policy success. The dispatch of 3,000 French troops to the former colony to shore up the Francophile government in the capital, Bamako, while suppressing a separatist challenge in the northern half of the country appeared to be a rare foreign policy achievement.
French ministers made gung-ho statements about how they would clear Mali of terrorists and restore order. Fulsome French media coverage celebrated the “liberation” of northern Mali from “radical Islamists” who had imposed draconian Sharia on the local population. There were hearty stories about how the local people came out to greet French soldiers with cries of “Vive La France!”. For a while it seemed as if France was back as a world power, banishing memories of disastrous colonial-era defeats and more contemporary disgruntlement at home. French pride was soaring again, thanks to “noble, selfless endeavor” in Africa.
In July, the French government hastily oversaw the convening of national elections in the impoverished African country for a new president. The exercise smacked of France trying to contrive an image of normality restored, despite the fact that out of the country’s 16 million population some two million are reckoned to not have regular access to food and up to one million people have been displaced largely by the recent conflict. Yet, absurdly, ahead of the presidential poll, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius vowed that special voting centers were being set up to enable even displaced Malians to cast their ballots. So much for democracy-in-action, French-style!
The election of Ibrahim Boubacar Keito was not without controversy, with some candidates who were critical of French intervention in their country, such as Oumar Mariko, protesting that their campaigns were stymied by the Francophile establishment in Bamako.
Nevertheless, the election of Keito was trumpeted as “a success” by the French media and Western media generally. France also convened an international donors’ conference in Brussels that promised some $4 billion in foreign aid to Mali, and Paris said it would soon be handing over “peacekeeping duties” to a UN force comprising 12,000 troops from neighboring African countries.
However, with 3,000 French military personnel still in Mali and a UN contingency nowhere near the promised numbers, it is a moot point that the order and national sovereignty exhorted by French politicians have been restored.
Indeed, the abduction and murder of two French journalists in broad daylight under the noses of French, UN and Malian army troops in the town of Kidal illustrates that, far from normality and order being restored, anarchy is reigning in large areas of northern Mali.
The brutal deaths indicate that earlier French pride in “salvaging” democracy and rule of law in Mali was an illusion. And that is bound to worry Hollande and his ministers greatly.
Following the deaths, a resident of Kidal told France 24: “This is not surprising. The town is not secure, anyone can get in and out and do anything – these kinds of things happen every day”.
A UN commander, Abdoulaye Bathily, from Senegal, added: “The truth is that in Kidal now there is no rule of law. Armed groups have not disarmed, despite a UN resolution requiring them to”.
French broadcaster RFI, for which the two deceased journalists worked, made this telling report on the security situation prevailing in northern Mali. “Ansar Dine [Islamist] fighters have come back in the past few weeks, with total impunity. This is the context of anarchy in which terrorists murdered two journalists on Saturday”.
Given the lawlessness of northern Mali, despite earlier French government claims to the contrary, it seems likely that Hollande and his ministers made special effort to secure the release of the four French hostages that were being held in Niger. The ransom figure of $26 million was reported by French newspaper Le Monde.
While the four men were abducted by militants back in September 2010 their continuing captivity did not reflect well on Hollande’s supposed defeat of “Islamist terrorists” in Mali. If anything, the safety of the men appeared to be put more at risk, precisely because of the French president’s military interventionism.
The Areva uranium processing plant near Arlit in Niger was bombed in May this year, causing several fatalities. That attack was claimed by jihadist group, the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa, as retribution for French military involvement in neighboring Mali. It is believed that the militants in Niger and Mali operate across borders – borders that, to them, are merely a neo-colonial construct bearing no relation to ancient common tribal heritage.
In the context of worsening security across northern Mali and mounting domestic woes, the Hollande government no doubt felt compelled to create a good news story by securing the release of the four hostages in Niger.
Only in the space of one week, that feel-good factor sought by Hollande has been shattered by the tragic deaths of two French journalists, murdered while reporting in supposedly French-liberated northern Mali.
But the anxiety for Hollande surely is that the angry French public are making the connection between the two events. Both are driven by blowback from Hollande’s meddling in African internal affairs – meddling that itself was driven by mendacious claims of supporting democracy and rule of law in former French colonies.
The reality is that the French intervention was always about ulterior motives of trying to boost popularity in the polls and securing French commercial interests in North-West Africa. Some 80 per cent of France’s national energy is derived from nuclear power, delivered by companies like Areva, the second biggest uranium producer in the world. About one-third of France’s total uranium supply required for its 59 nuclear power plants is sourced from Niger and Mali.
That is the real background to French neo-imperialism in Mali earlier this year under the guise of “defending democracy” – a policy that is now rebounding with the deaths of French nationals and the danger of more kidnappings.
All in all, there is an ominous feeling that even more bad news is on the way for the hapless Hollande, both at home and abroad.