By FRANCE 24
President François Hollande said on Thursday that he would not commit French combat troops to future military operations against Islamic militants in northern Mali, but would help with logistical support and training, a day before he embarked on his first official tour of Africa.
“We can’t intervene in the place of Africans, but we can offer logistical help, we can train, but France will not intervene” Hollande told FRANCE 24 in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
He said that it was up to the Malian government, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union to organise and man a military response to Mali’s Islamist rebels.
Armed Tuareg groups and Islamist militants allied to al Qaeda overran Mali’s north in April 2012, proclaiming the region’s independence and imposing sharia law.
Hollande said on Thursday that no negotiations were possible with those rebels. “Negotiate with whom? (…) With terrorists who impose sharia, cut off people’s hands and destroy monuments that were until now considered world heritage sites?” the president asked, referring to the destruction of centuries-old Malian mausoleums by religious extremists since the upheaval.The French president added that allowing Muslim extremists free reign in northern Mali and the Sahel region could turn the territory into a training ground for terrorists and represent a threat to France and other countries’ internal security.
“We must cut off that road to terrorists,” Hollande said, adding that European funding to combating food and health shortages in the Sahel were also important initiatives to combat terrorism.
Meeting opposition in DRC
Hollande said he wanted to “write a new chapter” in Franco-African relations a day before a trip that will see him deliver a key speech to Senegalese lawmakers in the capital of Dakar on Friday, and later hold meetings with both Congolese President Joseph Kabila and DR Congo’s historic opposition leader.
Hollande said that a gathering with Etienne Tshisekedi – who lost a contested presidential poll against Kabila in November 2011 – was meant to “send a message to all African leaders” about respecting opposition groups and democratic institutions.
Nevertheless, the French president said he was not travelling to Senegal and DR Congo to dictate policy to his African counterparts.
Earlier this week Hollande turned heads when he described the political and human rights situation in DR Congo as “unacceptable”. The remark earned him a sharp rebuke from Kinshasa, which said it was up to the Congolese – not Hollande – to decide what was acceptable.He seemed eager to ease tensions on the eve of his tour. “I am not going [to Africa] to play the role of a referee or a judge,” he noted. “That is not what is being asked of France and it is not what France wants.”
Hollande also sought to break with his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who infamously said in 2007, “the African man has never fully entered into history”, saying:
“Times have changed. Today France is willing to both meet other leaders but also tell them the truth. This truth is not a French truth; it is about universal rights, basic freedoms and democracy.
Defending French interests
Hollande said that on his trip he would address France’s historical “mistakes” – including colonialism and slavery – but that he wanted to focus on the future of Africa and, in particular, economic opportunities.
He recognised that, unlike Europe, African economies were currently growing in leaps and bounds.
“It is the continent of the future… and countries are investing there, including China and the United States (…) I am going to tell Africans ‘We want to be part of your grand adventure’,” the president said, adding that 20% of all foreign businesses operating in Africa were already French.
He said he was ready to defend France’s economic interests in Africa, and push for them to be transparent. “Yes, there are economic interests, but are not going to dictate diplomacy based on economic interests,” he said.