Supporters of France's military intervention in Mali want us to applaud it as a great act of charity. François Hollande, their argument goes, is protecting the government in Bamako from armed extremists. The "free world" should be grateful that he has taken this selfless stance.
The problem with this "analysis" is that it is wrong.
Hollande may try to give the impression that he has launched some kind of "humanitarian" mission. This idea falls apart when you realise that the Malian authorities - which Hollande is so determined to help - stand accused of many human rights violations. Amnesty International has documented how the Malian security forces have carried out extrajudicial executions of Touareg civilians, killings of farm animals on which nomads depend for their livelihood and an indiscriminate attack on a Touareg camp.
In reality, Hollande is pursuing a policy that can be traced back to Charles de Gaulle, who believed that - despite granting its colonies independence - France must retain a strong influence in sub-Saharan Africa.
Indeed, the French elite seems to have had trouble accepting that it no longer "owns" a big chunk of Africa. When the Cold War ended, France had 10,000 troops and a number of military bases in Africa. This presence has been largely retained, even if the pretexts that "justified" it have disappeared. Recent history is also littered with cases of France meddling in the continent: it undertook 45 military operations in its former colonies between 1960 and 2005.
A "new El Dorado"
A glance at a map is sufficient to understand how Mali fits into France's ambit. It borders other ex-colonies like Algeria, which Hollande visited in December, accompanied by 40 senior businessmen, and Niger, a major source of uranium used by the French nuclear firm Areva.
Total, the French energy giant, has indicated that there may be an abundance of oil and gas to explore in northern Mali and neighbouring Mauritania. Jean François Arrighi de Casanova, a Total representative, has even spoken of a "new El Dorado" in that area.
Northern Mali is - according to the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton - a hotbed "for all kinds of trafficking, drugs, arms smuggling" by those "terrorists" (her word) that France is fighting. One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the French elite is more interested in preventing insurgents from interfering with Total's work than in championing Mali's population.
It is interesting that Ashton is perturbed only about arms smuggling and not the wider weapons trade. The latest official EU report on weapons sales shows that France is the Union's top exporter, issuing 9.9 billion euros worth of licenses in 2011. The Mali operation has provided France with an opportunity to showcase its Mirage and Rafale planes and Sagaie tanks.
I have no doubt that the insurgents in northern Mali have done appalling things - including, it seems, recruiting child soldiers. But is France solely motivated by revulsion at their human rights abuses?
Of course, it isn't. France was willing to tolerate the activities of insurgents in other parts of Africa, whenever it was deemed politically expedient to do so. France had little difficulty with how insurgents controlled the northern part of Côte d'Ivoire between 2002 and 2011. In that case, the insurgents were described as "rebels", not "terrorists" in Europe. That was because they backed Alassane Outtara, the one-time International Monetary Fund staffer who is now his country's president. France had been eager to have Outarra in power. The official narrative says that France was acting against the brutality of his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Yet there are good reasons to surmise that France's real aim was to have someone in office who could be relied on to look after its commercial interests, particularly in Côte d'Ivoire's electricity and water networks.
Some MEPs have lamented lately how the European Union has not collectively rushed to assist France in Mali. France's neo-imperial machinations have nonetheless left their mark on EU foreign policy.
Committed to help?
In 2008, the Union undertook an operation in Chad that was presented as a response to the refugee crisis caused by violence in Darfur, western Sudan. It appeared, though, that the primary purpose of the operation was to shore up the Chadian dictator Idriss Déby. More than half of the troops deployed were from France - Chad's former colonial overlord. To give the mission a fig-leaf of impartiality, an Irish soldier was appointed its commander.
If France was truly committed to helping sub-Saharan Africa, it would have honoured its decades-old pledge to devote at least 0.7 percent of its gross domestic product to alleviating global poverty. As things stand, France allocates less than 0.5 percent of its GDP for that purpose. And the proportion of its development aid going to vital health and education projects is below 20 percent. The life expectancy of a Malian is just 51 years, compared to 81 for a French person.
By contrast, France spends more than 2 percent of its GDP on the military. Despite how it was vilified in the US a decade ago for Jacques Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war, France rivals Britain for the title of Western Europe's most trigger-happy nation. Two years ago, it was the first to attack Libya. Now it has bombed Mali on equally spurious grounds.
Let us be clear: France's policies towards Africa are not about altruism. They are about power.
•First published by New Europe