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Less than three weeks after being plunged into the unexpected role of war leader in Mali, President François Hollande must have welcomed news that French forces and their Malian allies had recaptured the symbolic city of Timbuktu from Islamist rebels.
Unlike his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, whose bristling swagger came readily to the fore when he took a leading role in the Nato intervention in Libya, Mr Hollande, once famously compared to a wobbly pudding, has never looked like a natural politician/general.
Even as he acclaimed the rapid advance in Mali, he was careful to modulate his words. “We are in the process of winning the battle,” he said after the securing of Timbuktu on Monday. But he quickly added: “When I say we, I mean the Malian army and the African (allies), supported by the French.”
In fact, it is clear that French special forces, conventional troops, helicopters and strike aircraft have led the assault on the jihadis since Mr Hollande ordered the first attacks on January 11 to stop the militants marching on Bamako, the Malian capital.
The early days were tough: a French pilot was killed on the first day and a simultaneous mission in Somalia to rescue a French hostage ended in the death of the hostage and two French soldiers. Then came the attack on the In Amenas gas installation in Algeria. By the end of the first week, as he doggedly stuck to his programme of public appearances, Mr Hollande was looking strained.
But since then, the swift French advance in Mali and the apparently low level of resistance – to date, no more French casualties have been reported – have eased the pressure.
Mr Hollande certainly seems to have reaped some benefit. From the start, French commentators applauded his decisiveness, suggesting that Mali could finally dispel his reputation as a leader prone to prevarication.
A BVA poll this week showed his approval rating had jumped this month to 44 per cent from 40 per cent in December. “His intervention in Mali, largely supported by public opinion, has enabled him to counter an image of a lack of authority that had begun to become a negative stamp for him,” BVA commented.
Ministers have even started to show a hint of triumphalism. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, said in an ebullient television appearance after the capture of Timbuktu: “The mission is fulfilled,” uncomfortably evoking the “Mission Accomplished” banner hoisted over US president George W. Bush in the early days of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
For good measure, Mr Le Drian added: “From the second day people told us we would get bogged down [in Mali]. Today nobody dares to say that.”
Actually, that is exactly what most analysts are still warning is the big danger. While there is widespread praise for the rapid deployment of the 3,500 French troops now on the ground and the speed with which they have turned the tables on the rebels, there are worries over the sweeping, open-ended nature of the government’s commitment.
The government says French troops will play no more than a supporting role as Malian and African forces move further north to recapture the rest of the country.
But there are real concerns that these forces will not be up to the task and that French forces will remain vulnerable to attacks from a jihadi enemy that has more retreated than been defeated. There is also the question of the fate of seven French hostages still held by Islamist groups in the region.
Nor has Mali distracted attention from the big domestic challenges facing Mr Hollande. The BVA poll showed 72 per cent of voters think his policies are ineffective. The streets of Paris echoed to the drums and whistles of trade unions protesting on Tuesday against mounting unemployment; a bitter parliamentary debate meanwhile got under way on the government’s proposal to legalise same-sex marriage.
The recovery of Timbuktu was undoubtedly a fillip for the president. But the French embroilment in Mali still has a long course to run, with the outcome unclear. As one diplomat in Paris remarked wryly: “In the end, victory in Libya didn’t save Sarkozy.”
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