François Hollande flew to Mali on Thursday to help celebrate the most striking success to date of his 16-month-old presidency – the French military operation to prevent Islamist militants from taking over the west African country.
To rousing cheers, Mr Hollande proclaimed a “great victory for Mali” as he addressed the crowd attending the inauguration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected last month in the wake of the French intervention.
“We won this war, we chased out the terrorists and you successfully organised elections,” he proclaimed as he marked what the Elysée Palace calls the “highly satisfactory” outcome of the action launched in January when French troops were rushed to the former French colony to stop columns of rebels advancing on the capital Bamako.
Mr Hollande also sought to send a message on Syria, where he has backed military action to counter the use of chemical weapons. “When women and children are massacred, the international community must react. That is the lesson of Mali,” he said.
But although the military operation is widely acknowledged to have been a bold risk that paid off, it has not translated into support for Mr Hollande’s tough stance on Syria – or improved public approval of his overall performance in office, which remains at a low ebb.
At the start of the intervention, which had full UN Security Council approval and was backed by most African countries, there were fears that French forces would become bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war with Islamist insurgents.
But the majority of fighting – mostly air strikes – was over in weeks, and destroyed much of the rebels’ arsenal and vehicle stock. French and Chadian soldiers pursued some of the fleeing militants into the mountains of the far north of Mali, killing dozens of them. Only a handful of French soldiers have so far died in the operation.
Alain Antil, head of sub-Saharan African studies at Ifri, the French Institute for International Relations, says it is “undeniable” that the military operation fulfilled its main objectives.
The rebels were defeated and the process of re-establishing a stable political regime is under way. Despite concerns that preparations for the presidential election were inadequate, voting went smoothly, turnout was high and the result was accepted by the losing candidates.
But Mr Antil cautions: “None of the key problems in Mali have been resolved. The next phase is essential and it will have to happen despite a lower level of international attention.”
So far the Islamist fighters have not returned to try to start a new insurgency. But the Elysée admits many simply fled to neighbouring countries, especially Niger and southern Libya.
“The operation neutralised part of the (Islamist) forces, but the rest dispersed. The issue of the Salafists and jihadis in the Sahel region is clearly not over,” says Mr Antil.
Another vital area of concern is the far northern town of Kidal, where separatist Tuaregs who have decades of grievances against the central government still exert control. France has tried to push Mali’s leaders to negotiate with the Tuareg rebels, though this has yet to happen.
When the Mali operation was launched, many commentators mused that it could be the moment when Mr Hollande’s image as a compromise-driven, rather soft-centred politician was transformed into that of a tough statesman.
Jérôme Fourquet of the pollster Ifop said 60-70 per cent of French voters backed the president’s move and, unusually, support grew as the operation went on.
On Syria, Mr Hollande again adopted a robust stance, quickly pledging France’s backing for a US-led military strike to “punish” the use of chemical weapons.
But public opinion has remained stubbornly opposed to attacking Syria. A brief boost to Mr Hollande’s popularity at the time of the Mali action has dissipated, with his Ifop approval rating standing at just 28 per cent at the end of last month.
“Mali – and Syria – have shown he can be very decisive and energetic in foreign affairs,” says Mr Fourquet. “But he is still seen as having difficulty in making decisions on domestic issues, such as unemployment, taxes and crime, that remain the top concern of the French public.”