There’s an old French expression cherchez la femme–literally, “look for the woman.” In the 1850s, novelist Alexandre Dumas used this phrase to convey his sense that whatever tensions or conflicts arose between people, somewhere at the root of them would be a woman. It’s subsequently become something of a literary cliche in multiple languages, particularly in detective fiction–a rather sexist counterpart to the more recent dramatic and journalistic adage, “follow the money.” Such phrases’ reductionist perspective suggests that however complex a situation might appear, it really boils down to a single underlying cause. In the 1930s, during fieldwork among the cattle-herding Nuer people of southern Sudan, British anthropologist E. E. Evans Pritchard adapted the phrase cherchez la vache, describing it as “the best advice that can be given to those whose duty is to understand a Nuer’s behaviour.”
As a shortcut to understanding Mali’s affairs of state and political discourse in 2021, I humbly propose cherchez la France. Allow me to explain.
When Prime Minister Choguel Maïga addressed the UN General Assembly in September and protested what he described as France’s decision to abandon Mali to its own devices, he was engaging in a time-tested strategy of tracing Mali’s woes to the actions of its former colonizer.
When, earlier this month, Prime Minister Maïga accused France of “training terrorists” in northern Mali, it was a noteworthy statement mainly because Malian officials have rarely expressed such accusations in public. But Maïga was merely repeating what ordinary Malians as well as public figures like singer Salif Keita have been saying for years.
As I wrote following Keita’s widely circulated remarks two years ago, the idea that “there are no jihadists in the north” and that France is behind the region’s insecurity is no fringe belief in Bamako. You hear it again and again among the city’s residents, from educated and uneducated people, from men and women, from Muslim ideologues and ardent secularists.
Since I first lived in Mali during the late the 1990s I have been aware of a strong current of critique toward France in local discourse. Malians at the time had many bad memories of colonial rule, and they widely resented increasing crackdowns on African immigrants in France. Keita’s hit 1995 song “Nou pas bouger,” which is still frequently played on some Bamako radio stations, asks why white people are welcome in Africa but Africans aren’t welcome in the whites’ home countries.
One should not mistake such critiques with a general dislike of France or of French people. French expats continue to live in Bamako unmolested. Members of Mali’s elite continue to embrace the French language, educate their children in French schools, and seek treatment in French hospitals. Most Bamakois have a relative or at least know someone who lives in France, and many depend on those migrants’ economic remittances. During the 1998 World Cup, I was quite surprised to find that nearly all of the Malians I knew (I was living in Sikasso at the time) were rooting for France against Brazil in the final; South-South solidarity seemed to count for little.
But Malians’ relationship with their one-time colonial master is nothing if not complex. During the 2002 World Cup, the same guys who had cheered les Bleus and their World Cup triumph rejoiced in France’s first-round loss to Senegal and early elimination (without scoring a single goal!) from the tournament. Malians might admire French values and envy French standards of living, but they still take some pleasure now and again in watching the humbling of a mighty world power. As they did when the US military hastily abandoned Afghanistan several weeks ago–albeit with some concern that Mali might see similar chaos.
Yes, Bamako residents cheered the arrival of French troops on their soil in 2013. But today, as revealed in a recent opinion poll, they have very negative views of French policy toward Mali and toward the continuing foreign military presence in their country. Over cups of tea in their neighborhood grins, on social media, and on radio phone-in programs, Bamakois are highly critical of Operation Barkhane, which many view as part of a sinister French plot to partition their country and steal its natural resources. Rumors fly about covert French support for the jihadists and the hated Tuareg rebels. The goal of French military intervention, one Malian man recently wrote on the Malilink forum, was “Mali’s balkanization so as to grab the country’s mineral and energy resources to benefit the West in general and France in particular.” Views like his have always been present in Malian public opinion, but they used to be in the minority. Nowadays, I suspect that they are held by a majority–or, at least, by a majority of those with the loudest voices. Espousing them has become a matter of national pride.
For years I have challenged such theories directed against France and that amorphous entity known as the “international community.” These theories play too loose with the facts: I have seen no evidence that France is profiting from mineral extraction in Mali, nor that it has any interest in seeing Mali destabilized and made ungovernable. At the same time, I understand why those theories persist. The French army’s unilateral decision in early 2013 to bar Malian security forces from the town of Kidal may have seemed justified to French officers and civilian officials, who feared a massacre of civilians if Malian soldiers retook the stronghold of Tuareg separatism. But let’s recognize the long-term costs of that decision: a country that remains divided, an insurgency that continues to grow, and an unprecedented degree of Malian suspicion toward French motives in the region.
Is President Macron sincere in his promises to scale back French military presence in Mali? Whatever happens, we should expect French airstrikes to continue in the country, and French boots to remain on the ground even if in smaller numbers. But the state of Franco-Malian relations is as bad as I’ve ever seen, and I would not be surprised if Malians continued to perceive French manipulation at work in their country long after the last foreign troops had left. In Bamako, anyway, the public has increasingly united around perspectives that used to be considered extreme–a dynamic we might call “oppositional conformity.” Cherchez la France only became a powerful tendency because of one fact: France lost the information war in Mali a long time ago.