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Sky News – Boulton and co: Syria and the French intervention

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sky news syria discussion

I told Sky News that although French public opinion is not in favour of military intervention in Syria, the Socialist party backs its leader’s position and the socialists currently have a majority in both parliament and the senate (what’s more the main opposition, UMP is deeply divided, including on this issue).
France has shown itself a strong ally of the Syrian National Council, as the first country to recognise it and has been pushing for greater support to it. It already delivers technical, humanitarian and financial support to the rebels and wants to give them the military edge, without getting too involved.
As the former colonial power, France feels it understands Syria and has strong economic interests which have been hampered by sanctions placed on the Assad regime. After the perceived success of Libya, where France has been guaranteed 3% of future oil production and Mali, which saw a weak President Hollande regain some popularity, a strong intervention in Syria could help boost Hollande’s flailing image and ultimately serve French interests in the region. Hollande is also concerned that not acting against the use of chemical weapons sends the wrong message to others in the region, and risks compromising security.

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Written by Myriam Francois

August 30, 2013 at 19:02

HuffPost: Mali: France’s Afghanistan?

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This piece was originally published on my HuffPost blog, here
It was also re-published on the Back-Bencher, here

Is France’s military intervention in Mali a neo-colonial enterprise, dressed up in the conveniently ‎nebulous language of the ‘war on terror’? France’s less than gleaming record in the region – ‎with 50 military interventions, since the 50 years of independence in 14 francophone African ‎countries – has left many questioning the official narrative of restoring order to the country.

In the midst of its economic woes, cynics might look at France’s intervention in Libya which brought ‎home lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts and point to Mali’s significant natural resources. ‎Others speculate that Hollande’s shaky political standing and the virtually unquestioned support ‎bestowed upon any leader opining to combat Al Qaeda and its associates, offers motivations closer ‎to home. Few things can ensure political consensus on the French political scene the way ‎‎’operation Serval’ has. A few renegades not withstanding – including former PM Dominique de ‎Villepin who drew parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan – the Socialists, UMP and even the National ‎Front have approved Hollande’s decision. But surely if the decade has taught us anything about ‎defeating highly motivated guerrilla groups, it is that short interventions turn into protracted, ‎bloody battles which can only actually be resolved at the diplomatic table. ‎

So why has France decided to intervene and why now? Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has ‎been a longstanding concern in the region and the suggestion it has teamed up with criminal and ‎militant elements in the lawless region in northern Mali is bound to create some concern. This is ‎particularly true as these elements take advantage of the power vacuum which has followed Mali’s ‎military coup in March 2012, to expand control over greater parts of the north, emboldened by the ‎government’s unresponsiveness. Indeed, in October last year an EU official warned “”We consider ‎AQIM the growing, and maybe the leading, threat against us.”‎

In the last few years, the northern region has become a haven for criminal activity and a key transit ‎route for cocaine trafficking. A recent United Nations mission in the Sahel region described ‎northern Mali as a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and rebellion. Until recently, ‎Mali’s disaffected ethnic tuaregs, a nomadic people at odds with the Mali government, had ‎teamed with jihadists to take control over an area the size of France, in a marriage of convenience ‎which soon ended in infighting. Criminal activity has funded the purchase of weapons used to ‎impose an extremist form of control, which has included public executions and the use of child ‎soldiers. ‎

This growing militancy in northern Mali has occurred alongside the demise of one of West Africa’s ‎hopes, as the military overthrow of a democratic government has left the country as just another ‎‎’failed state.’ Given broader instability in the region, namely that of the indigenous militants of the ‎Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, arms floating around following NATO support to rebels in Libya, ‎and the predominantly Algerian AQIM, a small but dangerous group involved in the hostage crisis ‎on an oil plant in alleged retaliation for France’s “crusade”, the implications of Mali’s instability are ‎far reaching for the region. Popular support for French intervention among African leaders should ‎be understood in light of the instability wrought by extremist elements and more cynically, to the ‎Western aid which may also ensue.‎

On one hand, the extremist alliance at work in northern Mali, which includes AQIM, Mali’s ‎homegrown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Dine rebels suggests an ‎emboldening of jihadist elements in the face of West Africa’s struggling states. Though a military ‎solution will likely defeat this threat, although perhaps not as quickly as the French might hope, ‎Foreign minister Laurent Fabius having optimistically predicted the intervention would last “a ‎matter of weeks”- it is unlikely to resolve systemic political instability. A military intervention looks ‎a lot like a quick fix solution to a much deeper problem which involves a legacy of failed states, ‎poverty, ethnic tensions and corruption. Northern Mali has never been properly integrated into ‎the state, with poor social indicators across the board, leaving an alienated ethnical tuareg minority ‎willing to forge insalubrious alliances. Oxford researcher in African studies, Harry Verhoeven ‎described the problem, saying: “the jihadists are a symptom, veiling a deeper crisis of ‎underdevelopment, failed nation-building and faltering public services delivery in Mali and the ‎Sahel more broadly.”

Comparisons with Afghanistan have their limitations, but after 11 years of armed conflict, the ‎realisation has dawned on many that the political stability of any nation cannot be secured through ‎strictly military means. French President François Hollande has described the goal of the operation ‎as “to ensure that when we leave (…) Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process ‎and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.” A unilateral military approach alone is ‎unlikely to achieve any of these goals. Without addressing the endemic problems which contribute ‎to the fragility of Mali’s state, France’s actions could simply be adding fuel to the fire. ‎

Written by Myriam Francois

January 18, 2013 at 15:54

Demonstrating for dignity: why are Muslims SO enraged?

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A version of this article was published on the Index on Censorship website, you can read it here or on my Huffington Post blog, here

Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many ‎commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of ‎intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of ‎Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over ‎sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts ‎and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is ‎hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting ‎and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim ‎responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about ‎much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah. In fact, at the ‎heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and ‎bolstered dictatorships and the expected instability to be found in post-revolutionary states.

Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume ‎that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya ‎appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one ‎its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What ‎brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However ‎there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much ‎broader – a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA’s historically fraught ‎relationship to the region.‎
This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against Western targets in any of the countries at ‎hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised because of the spin placed on the story, ‎represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of the fundamental intolerance of Islam.‎

For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US ‎embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under ‎fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of ‎the rebels against Gadhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the ‎sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have ‎helped get rid of Gadhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with ‎the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A ‎recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of ‎Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya , details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run ‎prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that ‎they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the ‎Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to ‎mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, ‎tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship. To think the elections which ‎happened just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region ‎is ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.‎

Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many ‎Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all ‎else has been desecrated. ‎

It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has ‎resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and ‎corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also ‎one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also ‎entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone ‎believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have ‎believed the US government could act to restrict the film’s diffusion, censorship being altogether ‎common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols – embassies, American ‎schools – even KFC – suggests the roots of popular anger is not hurt religious pride. These ‎symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has ‎provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the ‎region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their ‎repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the ‎US’s role in the region.‎

The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a ‎single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated ‎bales which made the straw so hard to carry. ‎
This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose ‎status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, ‎you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you ‎have left.‎

The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about ‎how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living ‎in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic ‎network” – all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million ‎dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.‎

Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were ‎keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions ‎between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a ‎region where they remain unsettled.‎

In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ‎ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for ‎what they are – predominantly political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to ‎recognise the basic humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to ‎diminish to decades of oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, ‎often with US complicity.‎
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization ‎of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, ‎then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These ‎protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt ‎humiliated over decades.‎ Humiliation doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly helps explain it.

Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the ‎West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces ‎them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the ‎reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search ‎for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group ‎of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, ‎is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.‎

Update: this piece was written in the very early days of the protests and consequently, I would want to nuance some of the points I’ve made here in light of more recent developments.
Firstly, popular anger in many countries might well have as much to do with the instability of a post-revolutionary context as it does with anti-US feelings. In Tunisia, in Libya, these protests might also be seen as occasions to vent anguish at more localised concerns.
Secondly, the protests were clearly instrumentalised very quickly by ‘islamist’ groups to bolster popularity by waiving the ever unifying banner of anti-US feeling. This suggest they took on a local, political dimension very rapdily.
Thirdly, in some countries, such as Libya, local people even took to the streets in following days to oppose extremist elements and express solidarity with the murdered embassy staff. This doesnt discount mistrust or anger with previous US policies in the region but it certainly suggests a more complex relationship wit the US following the NATO support to rebels.
Fourthly, only a very very small proportion of people protested and an even smaller number engaged in violence. In many stable countries, such as Malaysia or Turkey, protests remained peaceful. Those countries which saw the most violence were often the most unstable and local factors – disaffection, unemployement, anger at government, poverty – are all essential components having contributed to people’s behaviour during the protests.

Blood and Gore: Finding Our Human Dignity

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While gruesome images of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse hit the headlines here, in Libya, people were queuing to see his body, largely in order to ascertain for themselves, that the tyrant who ruled for so long, was indeed gone for good. The choice to print graphic close up images, or play on loop the final moments of a seriously injured man in the hands of an understandably angry mob, was shocking to many, not least those of us who had to explain the images to young children. But rituals of death also tell us a lot about the living. So what does our portrayal of Gaddafi’s death say about us?

Some of the most explicit and disturbing images of Gaddafi’s slumped body seem to play to our base desire for retribution and punishment, transforming our media networks into modern day coliseums, where morbid fascinations are given free rein, the sobriety of death sacrificed at the altar of ratings or high print runs.

There were undeniably serious journalistic challenges to covering Gaddafi’s demise, as the BBC’s editors’ decision to dedicate a post to the topic testifies. Specifically, were graphic images an essential part of telling the story or were they merely victory porn, dehumanizing both the watcher and the watched through a desensitazation to images which should otherwise be deeply distressing and disturbing? Are we revelling in the death of our enemies, the Bin Ladens and Anwar al Awlakis, in our very own rituals of atonement, where human sacrifice is still the ultimate price to be paid for ‘evil’?

Gaddafi’s death, like Bin Laden’s or al Awlaki’s raises significant questions over the appropriateness of extra judicial killings, due process and the human rights of war criminals – but what about basic human dignity? To be convinced that Gaddafi or anyone else should be afforded this, is in no measure an apology for their actions, but surely a marker of unfailing commitment to the very values which underpin our society.

The ethics of journalism have surely been tested by the latest technology which means we have access through camera phones to a dying man’s final seconds. The real question such footage poses is, whether the choice to air it is guided by journalistic concerns or profit margins. And more broadly, whether we don’t demean our own humanity, by the gratuitous parading of bodies like war trophies.

Ultimately, it is how we deal with people in death, as in life, which defines our commitment to human dignity.

(this article can also be found here )

Written by Myriam Francois

October 26, 2011 at 17:58