PARIS (AP) — Troops from 13 African countries that took part in the French-led war against al-Qaida-linked extremists in Mali marched with the French military during the Bastille Day parade in Paris on Sunday to honor their role in the conflict.
U.N. troops in blue berets who are helping to stabilize the west African nation of Mali also paraded with thousands of other soldiers down the Champs-Elysees Avenue in France’s annual tribute to military might. It marks the storming of the Bastille prison July 14, 1789, by angry Paris crowds that helped spark the French Revolution.
Despite the triumphal display, which included flyovers by fighter jets, tanks and giant trucks mounted with land-to-air defense systems, the realities in Mali suggest that President Francois Hollande’s 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 nation is to hold elections July 28, but tensions involving rebel Tuaregs in the north linger, along with political instability.
Sunday’s events, however, focused on the positive.
“It’s a victory that was won,” Hollande said in an interview after the parade with the France 2 and TF-1 television stations in the garden of the presidential Elysee Palace. “Look at what happened. It was a victory for Africa, a victory against terrorism, and pride that we must have.”
He said earlier the presence of African troops in Paris on the French national day was a “tribute to those who actively helped to banish terrorism from the Malian territory.”
Referring to trips he’s made to Africa, including a February visit to Mali, four weeks after the start of the French intervention, Hollande said, “I was saluted in Africa, not for what I said but for what I did.”
He noted that some extremists once lodged in Mali escaped into southern Libya and other neighboring countries. He said those nations need support, “but we won’t make war everywhere.”
Hollande oversaw the display of military might that France rolls out each year on Bastille Day with Mali interim President Dioncounda Traore and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon at his sides. Defense ministers from the African nations represented in the parade also were present.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said before the parade that the display 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 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, given the numerous shadows that surround it and the remaining uncertainties concerning its outcome,” said Fabrice Tarrit, the president of the association.
The critics also include Africans.
“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.”
Around 50 Malian troops marched in formation Sunday followed by soldiers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Chad and Togo.
They were followed by troops from the U.N. stabilization mission in Mali, which took over the French-led military operation on July 1. Some French soldiers who participated in the Mali operation, called Serval, also marched, and aircraft used in Mali, notably to provide cover for ground troops, were featured in the air display.
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.
In all, 4,800 troops marched in front of the presidential stage Sunday, along with 241 horses, 265 vehicles and 58 planes.
Bringing up the rear was an array of 35 helicopters, used in wartime and for civilian missions. Precision parachutists landed in front of the presidential stand to close the parade.
Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to the report.