Its allies reluctant, France goes it alone in Mali
Paris • France's allies have offered vocal support for the country's military operation in Mali, but when it comes to sending troops or weapons, they are agreeing to the bare minimum: a transport plane here and there, a handful of support staff and a lot of promises to think about it.
This is not the kind of international backing that French President Francois Hollande had hoped for after deciding to deploy 2,500 troops to Mali.
Even the former West African country's neighbors who are supposed to take over the mission within days have yet to send a single unit. And they have made nowhere near the commitment of France, which is expected within days to muster more than half the amount of soldiers it sent to Afghanistan at the height of the war there.
Hollande was at pains to point out the support of the European Union and the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, insisting "France will not be alone" as it fights militant Islamists that allies agree could threaten the West with terror attacks from the safe haven of Mali.
But if moral support has come easily, tangible signs that French soldiers will get backing as they moved north into Islamist territory were difficult to spot on Wednesday. It was hard to put a good face on Estonia's two or three officers, Denmark's 40 support staff for their transport aircraft, or the agreement of the United Arab Emirates to become involved "eventually."
"You say 'we'll give you nurses and you go get yourselves killed,'" Daniel Cohn-Bendit, French deputy to the European Parliament, said as he exhorted others in the EU to follow France's lead and take the risk of sending soldiers. "We will only be credible if French soldiers are not the only ones getting killed."
The European Union planned an emergency foreign ministers meeting on Thursday to discuss the issue again.
France's allies in North Africa have been even less supportive. Algeria's position on an intervention in Mali softened only slightly after Hollande visited Algiers in December, and the country has limited its acquiescence to allowing French overflights and closing its long border with Mali.
Tunisia's foreign affairs minister, Rafik Abdessalem, was blunt on Tuesday, saying he would "prefer that African problems be resolved in an African context."
"We are in general against foreign interventions," he said, without mentioning France.
Images of French troops moving through the Malian landscape have been constant on French airwaves since the operation began. The memorial service for the helicopter pilot killed in its opening hours was televised live on multiple networks. So far, the intervention in Mali has broad popular support, but fears that France could not go it alone and win began bubbling up Wednesday, as military officials acknowledged that the Islamic rebels overrunning the wasp-shaped country's north were unexpectedly resilient in the face of five days of airstrikes.
"We're very concerned that France is so isolated. It's as though the entire world has given France the green light, but would prefer to let us go it alone," Jean-Francois Cope, a leader of the conservative opposition, told the prime minister at a public debate Wednesday. "At the international level, why have you been unable to pull together a true coalition, as happened in Libya?"
Under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011, France led the coalition of countries that enforced a no-fly zone in Libya and ultimately led to the ouster of leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Hollande said the rebel onslaught in Mali left France no choice but to act.
"If this decision hadn't been made, the question wouldn't have been about when to make it because it would be too late. Mali would have been conquered," he told journalists in Paris.
France has upwards of 800 troops in Mali, and expects to ramp up to a total of 2,500 that will include French Foreign Legionnaires. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, surveillance planes and refueling tankers.
In contrast, Britain and Germany France's two closest European allies have refused to offer any troops. The same goes for other European allies and the United States.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs representative, thanked France and the African countries that committed troops during an emergency debate on Tuesday and acknowledged that no other European country was sending forces.
"We cannot remain indifferent in this situation," Ashton said.
Among African countries, Nigeria's offer of 900 soldiers is by far the largest and includes 150 officers expected to leave within a day. Other African countries have pledged forces but given no arrival dates, leaving the French fighting on their own indefinitely.
"We don't have a real support from most of our European partners. We know that the Africans will come. We know that they can provide surveillance, they can really be there with the French," said Yves Boyer, an analyst with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "But again, the bulk of the fight will be for the French."