In Mali’s Shadow: A Short History of French Military Mishaps in Africa

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christie's Images / CORBIS

Napoleon and His General Staff in Egypt by Jean-Leon Gerom

The French are not cheese-eating surrender monkeys. That’s an old canard—you  know, a French word—sealed by unfortunate performances in the World Wars. But, as France’s robust recent intervention into Mali shows, there’s plenty of esprit de corps in Paris, particularly when it comes to Africa. More than any of the other lapsed European empires, the French retained a domineering role in former colonies there, safeguarding their own extensive economic interests in the region with hard power and frequently sending in troops to back one client regime or the other in periods of civil strife and insurgent crisis. The French have intervened in Africa 50 times since 1960.

The latest French foray into Mali — aimed at unseating al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militias encamped in the country’s vast north — has already summoned the specter of Afghanistan over the Sahel. The French may be able to scatter their foe with a sustained air and ground offensive, but stabilizing Mali is a far greater challenge: the government in Bamako, hobbled by a March coup, is seen as weak and dysfunctional; the enemy militants may well be able to reorganize and intensify what’s fast turning into a regional conflagration.

How this ends is a question both French and Malian citizens desperately want answered. And looking to history offers mixed results: in the 19th century, the French were oft ruthless and devastating in their conquest of large tracts of Africa, but were at times made to suffer for their hubris. Here are a few episodes the French will prefer to forget.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt: The diminutive Corsican bungled in Russia, but a precedent was set by his ambitious Egyptian misadventure. In a bid to undermine the British position in India, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt in 1798, defeated its Mamluk overlords at the famous Battle of the Pyramids and briefly set up shop in Cairo. Accompanying Napoleon was an army not just of soldiers, but of scholars and scientists, who set out in arch-imperial fashion to make sense of and catalog all the wonders of this subjugated corner of the Orient. Napoleon’s grip, though, would not last long—defeats at the hands of combined British and Ottoman forces, particularly at sea, compelled the French to return home by 1801 with little to show for their efforts. Egypt fell back under Ottoman rule, Britain’s hand in the region was strengthened and the French even lost one of their greatest archaeological discoveries—the Rosetta Stone.

The Wars for Algeria: The French entered their most extensive imperial project in 1830: the conquest of Algeria. By 1848, with tens of thousands of European settlers streaming in from the other side of the Mediterranean, the territory would be declared an “integral” part of France. But the capture of Algeria would not come without setbacks and great brutality. It was a painstaking process of first wresting control of key port cities like Algiers from the Ottomans and then “pacifying” the hinterlands. Resistance came most famously in the form of the Sufi mystic and Berber warlord Abd-el-Kader, who harried the French in a sustained guerrilla campaign. In 1835, at Macta, his forces ambushed a detachment of French regular troops and legionnaires and slaughtered hundreds. It would take more than a decade — and a harsh scorched earth policy — for the French to isolate and capture Abd-el-Kader and pack him off to exile in Syria. But the warrior’s legend endured, making him one of Algeria’s folkloric national heroes and a figure of inspiration for a later generation of 20th century revolutionaries. Withstanding a brutal counter-insurgency of torture, mass arrests and napalm bombing, the rebel fighters threw the French—and over a million European settlers—out of Algeria in 1962.

Fashoda Incident: This was one of the more illustrative episodes of Europe’s colonial scramble for Africa. With most of Africa’s coastal territories already swallowed by one western empire or the other, European capitals eyed the continent’s interior covetously. Both France and Britain had dreams of trans-continental empires—for the British, a north-south dominion from Cape Town to Cairo; for the French, west-to-east supremacy from Dakar, Senegal to Djibouti on the Red Sea. These competing visions crossed paths in 1898 when a British expeditionary force confronted a French one at Fashoda, now in South Sudan. Outgunned and thousands of miles away from bases of support, the French retreated with no resistance. The episode, though, has lingered long in the French memory—experts even deploy the term the “Fashoda Syndrome” to describe France’s oft-overreaching desire in decades since to preserve its influence in Africa.

Kaocen Uprising: The ethnic Tuaregs, a group indigenous to the Sahel, have played a key role in the current crisis. It was their longstanding separatist movement that metastasized into the Islamist nightmare confronting France now in northern Mali. The Tuaregs, though, have waged such struggles for independence for decades, both against local African states and European powers. In 1916, one Tuareg leader—another Sufi mystic—named Ag Mohammed Wa Teguidda Kaocen escalated an existing jihad against the Europeans by capturing and holding the historic city of Agadez, in what’s now northern Niger, and a number of other towns. They held out for three months and defeated a number of French relief columns, in part with the aid of one cannon stolen from the Italians in Libya. (The current rebellion in northern Mali was aided by weaponry pilfered from the arsenals of ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.) Eventually, Kaocen’s rebellion was suppressed, but the question of Tuareg independence has burned ever since.

The Rwanda debacle: The horrific 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda was a black mark for France, which had intervened in an earlier conflict. France was perceived to have armed and helped train the soldiers of the regime that carried out the slaughter of nearly a million people. When the killings began, French forces did little to halt the massacres, mostly securing their own nationals. The post-genocide Rwandan government even accused France’s then leadership of “complicity” in the “preparation and execution of the genocide,” a charge Paris dismissed.

The original version of the story mistakenly identified Rwanda as a former French colony.


It si well known the americans hate everything french. This article is only a small contribution to this well ingrained habit

Nic12345 1 Like

This article is extremely bias, also Napoleon was French as he was born in Corsica which was and is a region of France (Genoa ceded Corsica to France in 1768, Napoleon was born in 1769). Also France was the leading allied power during WW1 and suffered over 1.5 million dead. 


I don't see the relevance of this article, not mentioning the inaccuracy and lacks of knoledge, it's smeels prejudice and ethnic biais.


"the rebel fighters threw the French—and over a million European settlers—out of Algeria in 1962". No they didn't. It was a political decision, confirmed by a referendum on march 1962 in France and on july 1962 in Algeria. According to algerian archival files, out of 336500 FLN militants, or mudjahidins - 124,000 soldiers and 202,500 civilians- 153,000 had been killed. That means there was no more armed resistance in 1962. Around 350,000 other civilians were killed either by the french army or the FLN. 30,000 members of the MNA, the other nationalist movment, have been killed by the FLN. The FLN also killed 4,500 european civilians and between 60,000 and 100,000 muslim civilians during the month following independance.


I note these comments below - actually, despite the mistake about Rwanda being French, the rest of the article is informative and accurate. France's history in Africa is shameful and brutal - and all those fine words about liberty, equality and democracy evaporate when France's record in Africa (and SE Asia) are carefully reviewed. France's current venture in Mali - rationalized as a fight against Islamic terrorism - is another shameful chapter in its long term exploitation of the continent - nothing less. It is more about preserving French interests in uranium (in nearby Niger)., and possible oil and gold reserves in the north of Mali. Of course I am convinced that it could have happened without some kind of coordination with Washington - a new division of labor where France provides the troops and the USA provides the transport planes, satellite intelligence and probably some special forces' activity. What is `shameful' is not the article as FrancoisD suggests - but France's behavior in Africa and the colonial mindset of the French - from left to right - which, 183 years after French troops landed in Algiers, is as alive today as it was in the past... cheers, Rob P. 



1/France's history in Africa was not "shamefull and brutal", at least not everywhere and all the time. The French fighting against Touaregs were seen by many black africans as protectors against those raiding them and trading them as slaves. We spent a lot of money to bring education and development to these people and many think of France as there second homeland. (black) African were never treated by the French as black people were in the USA untill the 60's -colonial rules was not segregation nor Jim Crow. Even in Algeria many people miss the time when the french ruled the country. We did not exploited the continent, but on the contrary always lost money (in the colonian time).

2/You obviously missed many things about French colonisation. It's impossible to compare western Indias colonisation in the 17th century untill early 19th c. - wich was most similar to slavery in US southern stastes- and colonisation during late 19th century or early 20th. Can't compare, colonisation of Algeria and colonisation of Marocco, the one of central Africa and Madagascar (were diseases killed more people in both camp than war), colonisation of Gabon and of Indochina.

3/France is much better considered by African people than by americans.

4/France was the only country to try something during the genocide in Rwanda, and there was nothing to gain (probably why the USA didn't move).

5/Unlike the USA, we didn't kill more civilians since WWII than Hitler killed jews. Korea ??, Vietnam 3.5 millions, Iraq during the 10 years blockade 1 million, Iraq war and Afghanistan hundreds of thousands.

6/I've been scaning all articles about France in Time mag since 1939 and none of them was favorable. Not one! 

Mac280 2 Like

Your opinion becomes significantly less important when you back it up with incorrect facts. 

FrancoisD 2 Like

Incredible that a journalist allowed to write in this newspaper writes so many errors both in the field of history than geography. Shame and incompetence.

max.ver83 4 Like

Comments like the ones claiming France should be ashamed of its performance in WW1 despite its soldiers doing the lion's share of the job and winning battles like the Battle of the Marne or the Battle of Verdun, the worst battle to be a soldier, or implying that Napoleon wasn't French by insisting to call him a Corsican (= French citizen), or confusing Belgian colonies with French ones and in fact this goal of this list itself (other than bash the French, what's the point ?) make it appear as what it is, pure French-bashing, complete with major historical inaccuracies and half-truths.

CDG 4 Like

Yes these two comments are very true.

I am Belgian and can say that Rwanda NEVER was a french colony, tho french speaking... This does not mean that France has no influence on ex belgian colonies such as Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. 

And yes, french forces had almost entirely crushed rebels in Algeria when they left. This was done for political and demographical reasons and decided by Charles De Gaulle, which caused rebellion among french troops especially foreign legion who were based in Algeria and civillians who considered it their homeland, since French settlers had colonised and developped the contry since 130 years.

There were not 40 million algerians at the time, more like 10 million, with 1,5 million europeans, but the algerian population was obviously growing faster than mainland population, and CDG saw this as a demographical danger for France.

Also in WWI the French were the ones who invented tanks and first used them. They had some poor general (as did the british : battle of the Somme and Gallipoli, etc) which caused huge human loses for almost no movement but the germans never really any of the main battle after their advance was halted. The French were the main victors of that war.

WWII is different, France having put too much confidence on Maginot line and suffering accutely from demographical meltdown and rise of communism and pacifism.

LeopoldZitnik 3 Like

The Algerian rebels didn't throw the French out during the Algerian war. Contrary to popular belief, the French military won every battle during that conflict. By 1958, and especially after the battle of Algiers, the FLN was so crippled that it couldn't direct any military action of importance. 

France left Algeria because of the exhaustion of the French mainland population given the large amount of casualties, and De Gaulle understanding that colonial rule was finished as a idea, since  holding onto Algeria would have meant giving French citizenship to 40 million Algerians.

Regarding WW1, the French performance was great. France was 40 million people whereas Germany was 70 millions. The French bore the brunt of the allies' efforts on the western front (yes, more than the Brits or the Americans). The Battle of Verdun itself is the definition of heroism and accounts for the sheer bravery of the common French soldier.  

PeachedePalenche 4 Like

I see to major mistakes in that article: one is that France have nothing to reproch to herself in the way she acted in WWI. 

The second is that France never was the Colonial ruler of Rwanda. It was Belgium.