There’s been little discussion of French-Mali relations prior to the current conflict (by that I mean the past few months …) so I figured this might make for a good first post. This is a really brief overview and not an in-depth analysis but I do think it is useful to put things into perspective.
A little bit of background …
First a few facts. Mali gained independence from France in 1960. Early relations between France and Mali are often discussed in the context of Mali’s 1962 decision to opt out of the Franc Zone (a cornerstone of France’s post-colonial policy in Africa – more on that in a later post, I promise), which is seen by some to have engendered many of the country’s subsequent economic and financial difficulties. This was in large part due to post-independence President Modibo Keita’s socialist-leaning economic policy. Mali signed on the Franc Zone later, in 1967, but under an agreement that saw the Malian franc devalued by 50%. Full integration of Mali into the UEMOA (Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine, “West African Economic and Monetary Union”) did not happen until 1984.
A letter from Charles de Gaulle written in 1961 to Modibo Keita is particularly telling of the relationship between France and Mali in the early years of Mali’s independence:
En cette occasion, très importante pour ce qui concerne la direction que vont prendre les relations entre nos deux pays, je tiens à vous dire personnellement et franchement combien je suis affecté par la politique que le Mali pratique à l’égard de la France et à quel point je regretterais d’avoir à en tirer les conséquences pour mon pays. Je ne méconnais aucunement, croyez-le bien, les difficultés que comporte, pour la république du Mali, sa situation nationale et internationale présente et je pourrais m’expliquer que cette situation influe par épisodes sur votre comportement. Mais l’attitude générale que vous avez adoptée vis-à-vis de nous est véritablement désobligeante et injustifiée.
On this occasion – very important with regards to the direction that the relationship between our two countries will take – I would like to tell you personally and honestly how much I am affected by the policy undertaken by Mali with regards to France and how much I would regret having to reap the consequences for France. I am not underestimating the difficulties faced by Mali with regards to its current national and international situation and I would like to believe that this situation is influencing your behavior. But the general attitude that you have adopted with regards to France is truly [insulting/dismissive] and unjustified.
Of course, this is more telling of de Gaulle’s personality and style of communication than anything else, but it is important to note that the relationship between France and Mali in the early years of Mali’s independence were rocky and much less stable than, say, the relationship between France and Cote d’Ivoire.
Today, French-Mali relations are quite strong, with France having vested interests in seeing Mali stable and secure. The Mali page on the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website emphasizes that relations have been “excellent” in recent years and notes the number of bilateral visits that have taken place since 2002. 100,000 Malians live in France these days, according to Reuters, although the subject of illegal immigration remains an issue between the two countries. France and Mali have signed a number of bilateral treaties (available in French here), including 1 military-related one – see below.
French-Malian military cooperation
In 1985, France and Mali signed a military cooperation accord (assistance militaire technique in French, or AMT). The text of the AMT is available here (in French).
Since decolonization, France has signed a number of AMTs with its former colonies (and some non-former colonies). In Africa, France signed AMTs with Benin (1975), Burkina Faso (1961), Burundi (1969), Cameroon (1974), CAR (1974), Chad (1976), Comoros (1978), Congo (1974), Congo-Zaire (1974), Cote d’Ivoire (1961), Djibouti (1977), Equatorial Guinea (1985), Gabon (1960), Guinea (1985), Madagascar (1966), Malawi (1980), Mali (1985), Maurice (1979), Mauritania (1986), Morocco (1994), Niger (1977), Rwanda (1975), Senegal (1974), Seychelles (1979), Togo (1963), Tunisia (1973), and Zimbabwe (1992) (see note 1). Phew.
AMTs are different from defense agreements, which France has signed with Cameroon (1974), CAR (1960), Comoros (1978), Cote d’Ivoire (1961), Djibouti (1977), Gabon (1960), Senegal (1974) and Togo (1963) (see note 2). Note that Mali isn’t on the list.
What’s the difference between an AMT and a defense agreement you may ask. AMTs essentially provide the legal basis for France to provide military training, technical assistance (such as maintenance, logistics, etc) and arms transfers. Defense agreements, on the other hand, permit the signatory state to request help from France in cases of foreign aggression or domestic instability, and allow for pre-positioned French troops. Defense agreements typically incorporate elements of an AMT. Most importantly though, a lack of a defense agreement has historically not precluded a French intervention when deemed necessary. For instance, the French military has been actively involved in Chad since 1969, where they have conducted no less than 10 separate military operations (including one currently in progress, Operation Epervier – which apparently has donated 200 troops to the Mali operation) (see note 3), despite having signed no defense agreements.
Of course, the current French military operation in Mali, Operation Serval (which is either the name of a commune in northern France or the name for an African wild cat – I’ll let you decide which one the operation is named after), is sanctioned under the auspices of the UN – UN Security Council Resolutions 2056, 2071 and 2085, something which was strongly reiterated by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius during a press conference on January 14th (read the transcript in English here). So to a certain extent, existing bilateral agreements between France and Mali are of little importance. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that France’s involvement isn’t coming out of nowhere.
Side note: Interestingly, Chapter IV, Article 12 of the French-Mali AMT notes that the AMT “excludes all possibility of stationing of French armed forces units on Malian territory” (“Le présent Accord de coopération exclut toute possibilité de stationnement d’unités constituées des Forces Armées françaises sur le territoire malien.“) … I’m not quite sure what the implication of that could be and welcome any comments on this point (well on any point really but particularly this one!).
Somewhat related, you should also read this really interesting post on the 1977 Additional Protocol relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts and what it may mean for France’s intervention in Mali.
And because I absolutely love maps, you should check this map by Jeune Afrique (in French).
1. AMT data taken from Charbonneau, Bruno. 2008. France and the New Imperialism: Security Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Burlington: Ashgate.