After winning adulation across Mali for a 5-month military offensive earlier this year that scattered Al-Qaeda fighters, France is caught in a tug of war between the government in Bamako and rebels demanding some form of autonomy based at Kidal in the north.
Mali’s interim government signed a peace agreement with Tuareg representatives in mid-June, allowing national elections to take place. As part of the deal, Bamako agreed to open talks over the Tuaregs’ demands for more autonomy, but those negotiations have stalled.
“The liberation of the country was done jointly (between French and Malian) troops up to Kidal, and then the Malian army was blocked,” Mali’s newly-elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta told le Monde newspaper in an interview.
“For someone like me, a friend of France, I can see a negative reaction to the enthusiasm towards France by the Malian population that had lauded the intervention.”
The comments come on the eve of a summit in Paris where France will try to persuade African leaders that it can no longer play policeman on the continent, even as it prepares to act in a new conflict in Central African Republic.
Mali imploded last year when the Tuareg MNLA separatists tried to take control of the north. Their rebellion was soon hijacked by better-armed and funded Islamist militants linked to Al-Qaeda, before the French intervention in January.
French troops cooperated with the MNLA who took control of the remote northeastern town of Kidal and surrounding areas after the Islamist fighters fled French air strikes into the nearby Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
But that on-the-ground cooperation, and France’s public insistence that the MNLA should take part in talks on Mali’s political future if it drops a demand for full independence for the north, is an irritant for Mali’s military.
“The international community is forcing us to negotiate on our soil with people who took up arms against the state,” Keita said. “I remind you that we are an independent state.”
A French official dismissed suggestions Paris had ever cooperated with the MNLA and said that talks between Bamako and Tuareg separatists were a Malian issue to which France was merely an observer.
Under the June peace pact that allowed the government to return to Kidal ahead of elections, the rebels remain in Kidal but were required to return to their barracks under the supervision of UN peacekeepers, stop carrying arms in public and dismantle all roadblocks.
The MNLA on November 29 said they were ending a five-month-old ceasefire with Mali’s government and taking up arms, a day after Malian troops clashed with stone-throwing protesters who blocked a visit by the prime minister to Kidal. It said Bamako was not keeping to its side of the deal.
Speaking in Paris, Moussa Ag Assarid, the MNLA’s representative in Europe, said the group had been left with no alternative but to defend itself if attacked by Malian troops, given that the peace talks had seen no progress.
Bamako was showing “no political desire” to move forward, and Paris was not taking control of the situation, he said.
“If Paris does not take a courageous decision and assume its responsibilities then sadly we risk finding ourselves in a terrible situation,” he told reporters.
“France has a historic responsibility to find a solution. Why is (French President Francois) Hollande not trying to find a solution before the Malian government puts in place the same charade as in the past?”