This month France has sent ground troops to and bombed northern Mali. This feels like the first time in a while that a country besides the US has stuck its neck out to fight violent Islamist groups that were operating in a foreign country. France has historical ties to Mali, but are there pragmatic reasons for the decision as well? The President of France, Hollande, is a socialist, which as an American I associate with being liberal and less prone to use military force abroad. So, what explains his decision?
The reason for French military action now is that the carefully crafted French-led plan of action (train African troops to fight the Islamists, with France as trainers) got thrown out the window since said Islamists declined to oblige waiting on the French/UN timetable and launched a major 2-column advance on the South that threatened to net them a complete win. Mali's government asked France to Do Something Right Now Before All Is Lost.
That plan was basically United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085:
adopted unanimously on 20 December 2012, authorized the deployment of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).
The reason France cares in the first place is because they are worried that Mali will become the new Algiers and thus threaten French interests, both in Africa and at home.
From AP story, via FNC:
France has some 6,000 citizens and economic and strategic interests throughout the Sahel desert region that includes Mali, interests to be protected.
But the real fear is that a state run by radical Islamists could spread the doctrine throughout the Sahel and do what al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the leading radical groups in Mali, has failed to do from its home base in neighboring Algeria — strike across the Mediterranean.
At the moment, the threat is limited to Mali and potentially its neighbors — where terrorists can target western interests but lack the structure to do damage elsewhere, said Gohel said of the Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank. "But they are growing in ascendancy. ... We're seeing the Talibanization process taking place inside Mali."
French authorities worry that the radicals could contaminate the diaspora of Malians in France and elsewhere, much as some Algerians in France took up the jihadist cause in the 1990s, sending weapons and money to Islamist insurgents in Algeria — and carrying out terrorist attacks in France.
You can invoke history, generalities about French interests there and elsewhere, the risk of spillover, etc. or focus on immediate tactical causes and domestic politics in France.
But there is a simpler, more direct answer: 75-80% of France's power is produced in nuclear power plants and a fourth of the fuel comes from Niger. Fuel imports are handled by a company called Areva, which is mostly government-owned and extremely well-connected.
And the uranium mines are in the North-West of the country, very close to the border with Algeria and Mali. France simply cannot allow this area to come under threat from anybody.
This article answers a lot of questions:
France is intervening in Mali for the sake of its energy supply. ........, and the region of West Africa is rich with uranium deposits.
Neighbouring Niger, which is the world’s fifth-largest uranium producer, accounts for 33% of France’s uranium supply, but that is set to rise. The French energy company Areva, which is mostly state-owned, is opening a new exploration site in Imouraren, about 300 kilometres from the Malian border. Areva has been calling for military protection of the uranium mines for a long time, but their requests have been rejected on the basis that elite soldiers could not be used permanently to safeguard economic interests.