Contribution by Victor Blanchard,
3rd-year student in ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Business Development:
“As the son of a French soldier, I have lived a long time without the presence of my father who had gone on an operation in Africa. While I admire the French army, I am also very intrigued by the role of these missions. I consider that a respectful look at the work of the armies is not incompatible with a critical analysis of the real role of our men in combat.”

Serval ( /ˈsɜːrvəl/ ): Large wild cat of intertropical Africa, high on legs, with big ears and short tail, living in savannahs and gallery forests, excellent runner and jumper, feeding on rodents and frogs.

The triggering of the French force at Mali’s request: 

On January 11th, 2013, at the request of the Malian government and its interim president Dioncounda Traoré, the French President François Hollande launched the largest French military operation since the Algerian war. After the takeover of Northern Mali by Salafist Jihadist groups since 2012, the movement imposed Sharia law on half of the country and advanced towards Bamako without the Malian army being able to cope with it.

Within 48 hours, the first troops arrived on Malian grounds. Since then, more than 4,500 men and women have been carrying out a technically and strategically complex operation given the situation in the sub-Saharan region. According to the French government, there were three goals for this external operation:

– Stop the attacks of terrorist groups in the Sahel Band.
– Restore Mali’s integrity and freedom to the Malian people.
– Protect the 5,000 French nationals who live in Mali.

An operation led by “Daddy Hollande”:

In this operation to reconquer Mali, the French army is supported by an African mission that is essential to its success: AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission to Mali).

Thanks to these 6,000 soldiers, including 2,400 from Chad, the operation to destroy the Salafist rebel armies in Mali lasted no more than two months. After the taking of the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and finally Tessalit by the French special forces and supported by the Air Force, the mission was a success for the French government.

Nicknamed “Daddy Hollande”, “the peacemaker” or “the liberator” by the Malian population, President Hollande – who was at the bottom of the polls in France at that time – enjoyed the acclaim from the crowd in the Malian capital. “Papa Hollande” then gave a speech at the Square of Independence in Bamako, a public place that had been renamed in homage to the liberation from the French colonizer’s oppression after 1960. In this speech he conveyed the idea of Mali’s new independence which was no longer from colonialism, but from terrorism and Islamist fanaticism.

An excellent result for France, a mixed result for Mali:

(Picture: Ministry of Defense)

Operation Serval is strategically, militarily and from the point of view of international politics a great success for François Hollande. With “only” 6 French casualties and the destruction of all targets in only 16 weeks of operation, France has demonstrated its military potential. More than 600 Salafist soldiers were killed and 400 made prisoners.

But it is in both France and Africa that this operation is problematic. With a cost of 634 million euros, it’s the most expensive “OPEX” (military external operation) of the five-year term of President François Hollande. The most “belligerent” president of the 5th Republic (with a total of 5 OPEX and the Sentinelle operation in France), was not only exposed to harsh criticism by the French population, but also by Africans. Operation Serval was described by many African intellectuals as the recolonization of Africa by France. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika did not appreciate this operation in 2013 and the fact that France seemingly wanted to play sheriff for Africa.

It is true that this operation in Mali and the Sahel has a much more complex reason than the protection of the Malian population by the Hollande government. The Sahel Band is the region with the richest oil resources. Areva operates with Total a large part of the deposits and mines as well as the Uranium reserves around the borders of Mali (Niger, Algeria, Chad…). The protection of these resources is essential for France.

The war in Mali has been described as a war without images for the international media. Apart from the footage provided by the Ministry of Defense, we have no images of French military interventions by the media. There is no doubt that this intervention was also intended to demonstrate the power of the army – a demonstration for the quality of the equipment and for the French forces in general. The choice of images has been skillfully used by France to best justify to the French and international population the importance of this type of mission.

Moreover, without international media on the spot, many blunders were camouflaged by the army on the spot. The most sensitive case is probably that of a Malian child killed by mistake by a patrol officer. “Jeune Afrique” magazine had access to the minutes of a meeting held behind closed doors between French officials and UN investigators, which revealed that a French officer admitted that he had mistakenly shot the young Malian before burying him in secret. The French army has never publicly admitted to having killed the child by mistake.

An unstable territory is a contract territory

The Sahel Band being a rapidly changing territory needs to be formed. The purpose of Operation Serval was therefore to train the troops on the ground that will eventually take over (Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, etc.). The increasing militarization of Africa is a boon for manufacturers of weapons and war materials. An unstable territory is a contract territory for these companies. France has therefore trained African territories with French equipment. Good news for the world’s 3rd largest arms dealer after the United States and Russia.

Today, Barkhane Operation has taken over from Serval Operation and costs the French taxpayer more than 550 million euros each year. The north of Mali is still unstable; attacks continue more than 5 years after the liberation of Timbuktu. The Jihadist groups have no longer the capacity to overthrow the Malian state, but they still have the capacity for terror.

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