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French defense minister sees progress against Mali terrorism

In an interview with Al-Monitor, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks about French involvement in Mali and the Central African Republic.
French President Francois Hollande (C), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (3rdR) and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (2ndL) inspect arms confiscated from ex-Seleka rebels and "anti-balaka" militia by the French military of operation Sangaris at a French military base in Bangui, February 28, 2014. President Francois Hollande flew to Central African Republic on Friday to tell its leaders and French forces stationed there that France will work to stop the country splitting in two. REUTERS/Sia K

French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian says that the capacities of armed terrorist groups in Mali have "considerably declined as a result of eight months of military and stabilization operations conducted by the French army, the forces of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and the Malian armed forces."

Le Drian, who previously served as president of the Brittany region, was appointed defense minister by French President Francois Hollande in May 2012.

In January 2013, in response to a request from former Malian President Dioncounda Traore, the French government sent troops to fight armed terrorist groups that had besieged the country. 

Le Drian believes that France has both a commitment and an obligation to help allied African nations in their struggles against Islamic extremism and in support of democracy. In the Central African Republic, where France has also sent troops, he said, "The situation … did not achieve the prospected serenity yet."

The text of the email interview follows.

Al-Monitor:  How would you characterize the situation in Mali and the Central African Republic?

Le Drian:  We are facing two different situations in Mali and the Central African Republic. Concerning Mali, on Jan. 11, 2013, France responded to [former] President Dioncounda Traore’s call to stop, repress and destroy the bases of armed terrorist groups. These groups were threatening the presence of the Malian state. Today, their capacities have considerably declined as a result of eight months of military and stabilization operations conducted by the French army, the forces of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and the Malian armed forces. We were able to inflict serious damage in the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains, which is the terrorist groups’ sanctuary. Mali is facing a challenge on the security level, which is to guarantee the authority of the Bamako government on the whole Malian territory, because there is only one Mali. The challenge is also political; provide to each component the opportunity to participate in the reconstruction and development of the country. France feels confident about [Malian] President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s determination to carry out these projects.

In the Central African Republic, the international community responded to the concerns we expressed regarding the fate of this country, which is as big as France and Belgium together but less populated by 5 million people. We had to put an end to the massacres perpetrated with impunity, and in the absence of [human] rights and [news media] cameras. The forces of the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic quickly mobilized and deployed, along with the French forces in the Operation Sangaris, on the roads and in the cities across the country. The situation in the Central African Republic did not achieve the prospected serenity yet. The transitional process, led by [Central African Republic interim President] Catherine Samba-Panza, should result in elections and contribute to the restoration of the basic functions of the Central African Republic state, such as security, justice and public finances. This will take place through dialogue with all the communities of the country.

This is a condition of the stability [in the country]. Today, the number of displaced in Bangui has considerably decreased, and the main road that leads to Cameroon and allows the provision of food and supplies was reopened. Central Africans ought to take their fate into their own hands. They can do so with the support of the UN, whose mission will progressively deploy [in the country].

Al-Monitor:  How do you explain the lack of commitment of the other European countries?

Le Drian:  I am strongly convinced that Europe ought to produce its own security. It has to do so because it is the meaning of history. The restoration of the balance of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the unstable areas threatening our continent from the south and north should be enough reasons to motivate our governments to reinforce the Europe of defense and the individual defenses. The Europe of defense should be achieved based on concrete projects and in a pragmatic way.

Let’s take a look at the European Union military mission to contribute to the training of the Malian armed forces, for instance, which was created in the spring of 2013 and which has already formed four battalions of the future Malian army. Another European mission, the European Union military operation in the Central African Republic, has recently participated in achieving security in Bangui. Finally, I will mention other projects, such as the pooling of European air transport or the creation of observation UAVs by European industries. I am aware that the road [to stability] is still long before Europe can fully realize that it has to take its security matters into its hands.

Al-Monitor:  Is France still the “gendarme” of the African continent? If not, how to restore political stability in these African countries?

Le Drian:  During the Elysee Summit for Peace and Security in Africa held in December 2013, French President Francois Hollande clearly explained the role and mission of France in Africa, i.e., support Africans in the construction of their own defense and security structure. We do not interfere on behalf of Africans, which is best evidenced by their mobilization against terrorists in Mali. They also mobilized to contribute in the stabilization of the Central African Republic. For this purpose, African states ought to invest in their [own] security, train soldiers and modernize their army. France will help them in the context of a rational responsibility.  

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