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

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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.