PARIS (AP) — Troops coming from Mali and 12 other African countries will march with the French military in an unusual Bastille Day parade in Paris on Sunday, to honor their efforts against terrorism.
Beyond the triumphal display on the Champs-Elysees, including flyovers by fighter jets, the realities in Mali suggest that President Francois Hollande’s first military intervention has had mixed results.
The mission he launched in January helped the Malian government retake control of much of the country from al-Qaida-linked extremists who had seized northern Mali and threatened the capital. The country is heading for elections July 28, but tensions involving rebel Tuaregs in the north linger, along with political instability.
Sunday’s events, however, will focus on the positive.
“Their presence is a tribute to those who actively helped to banish terrorism of the Malian territory,” Hollande said of the African troops marching in Paris.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it is “the mark of a solidarity that concretely expressed itself in Mali, and of a common destiny, even beyond the limits of continents, of which we have every reason to be proud.”
But some critics say the Mali operation and African presence in the parade reflect France’s ambiguous and sometimes patronizing relations with the continent —especially with its former colonies such as Mali — often referred to as “Francafrique.”
The French non-governmental organization Survie, which is fighting against neocolonialism, condemned “the self-proclaimed role of gendarme of Africa that France claimed in Mali.”
“This parade gives a scent of victory to a military operation which is far from being reasonably presented like that, giving the numerous shadows that surround it and the remaining uncertainties concerning its outcome,” said Fabrice Tarrit, the president of the association.
Some critics also come from Africa.
“Knowing the history of France, especially French armies with Africa, it doesn’t sound good,” said Senegalese rapper Keyti, whose real name is Cheikh Sene, 40.
“This last decade we’ve been trying to be really independent from the French army, especially since they had camps in certain countries around Africa,” he said. “And now with what happened in Mali, what’s still happening there, it’s like they found another way to come in.”
Mamadou Franck Bamba, communications chief for former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo’s political party, said, “I think it’s another proof of the fact that colonialism is not over yet. This is just a sign, a bright sign, of imperialism, and if I were president I would not send troops for that.”
Gbagbo refused to come in Paris in 2010 for Bastille Day, when African soldiers marched under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. They were invited to celebrate half a century of independence from colonial rule, but some human rights organizations expressed their concerns about rights abuses and dictatorial regimes in some of the countries involved.
This year, African and U.N. troops involved in Mali were invited as the guests of honor and will open the parade Sunday morning.
Around 50 Malian troops will be marching, followed by soldiers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Chad and Togo.
They will be followed by troops from the U.N. stabilization mission in Mali, which took over the French-led military operation on July 1, and some of the French soldiers who participated in the operation, which is called Serval.
France had more than 4,000 troops at the height of the campaign, and is now gradually reducing that. France will keep about 1,000 soldiers in Mali after the end of 2013.
Bastille Day marks the July 14, 1789, storming of the Bastille prison by angry Paris crowds that helped spark the French Revolution.
In all, 4,800 troops will be marching in front of the presidential stage Sunday, where Hollande will stand next to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In addition, 241 horses, 265 vehicles, 58 planes and 35 helicopters will also be participating.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to the report.