From Philip Delves Broughton, Daily Beast:  “De Gaulle said that he always had a ‘certain idea of France,’” says Steven Smith, the former Africa editor of Le Monde, now a visiting professor at Duke. “But over the past 10 to 15 years, the only idea of France has been uncertainty. London and Berlin were much more vibrant. Paris has been living on the Woody Allen myth of a golden age. All anyone seems to do is complain and then complain about other people complaining. Mali at the very least is a place where the French have their moorings, where they can do things better than the Americans. . . ."

The year to date has offered nothing but bad news for the French economy. Its manufacturing woes were exposed by a report published this month showing that France had lost 1,000 factories since 2009. Unemployment is at 10.5 percent. Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls said recently that he was concerned that union protests at job cuts were turning into “social implosions or explosions” as a result of years of worsening economic conditions. A memo was sent at the end of January to police intelligence chiefs around France warning them to look out for the possible “radicalization” of labor unrest. All in all, a grim landscape for the beleaguered [French President Francois] Hollande.

But the Sarkozy playbook offered Hollande some invigorating options. With his dramatic interventions in the Ivory Coast and Libya, “Sarko” had demonstrated that, for all the political misery in Europe and the gloomy talk of decline so popular in Paris, France remains a vital political, military, and moral power—if it chooses to be. Mali offered Hollande the chance to show that he was more than marking time in the Élysée. That he too was capable of projecting French power overseas.

“You have a man who has never taken an executive decision in his life, and now he has taken a very big one,” says François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris. “It not only changes other people’s perceptions of him, but his perception of himself and what he is capable of. He is politically transformed.” Hollande’s ability to move so decisively in Mali stemmed from the experience of his senior military adviser, Gen. Benoit Puga. As a young parachutist, Puga had participated in a French raid on Kolwezi, Zaire, in 1978, to release European and Zairian hostages being held by Katangese rebels. Africa ran in his blood, the way it does with many of the best French soldiers. Puga, a rare survivor from Sarkozy’s Élysée, could confidently tell Hollande, once the president had received Mali’s plea for help, that his forces were ready. The forward-deployed French troops in Chad and the Rafale jets at St-Dizier were primed to move. . . .

Both the Americans and the French had invested heavily in understanding the threat. The United States had spent more than half a billion dollars developing intelligence and training local troops from Morocco to Nigeria. It hoped to control the problem without putting boots on the ground. But it was always more personal for the French. Not only did it have historical ties in the region, but al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had made direct and bloodcurdling threats against France. “A component of this which the Americans seem keen to forget is that it is al Qaeda,” says Heisbourg. There is a risk, he says, that America is underestimating al Qaeda as it did in the 1990s.

At a security conference in Munich on February 2, Vice President Joe Biden divided al Qaeda into its “core,” based along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its less threatening affiliates, in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and North Africa. However, as Heisbourg points out, AQIM came very close to blowing up the In Amenas gas-processing plant in Algeria in January, before settling for taking and killing hostages. “Had they succeeded,” says Heisbourg, “it would have been one of the biggest explosions since Nagasaki. That’s pretty serious. . . .”

“The neo-colonial world is dead. It’s over,” says Moreau Defarges of IFRI. “We know we are in a different era. Even if France is successful in Mali, it won’t change what is going on in Africa with the arrival of the Brazilians and Chinese. Africa is moving away from Europe, and this won’t change. This could be France’s last big intervention in Africa. It’s very expensive, and I’m not sure we can afford this. The main headlines in France today are about unemployment and the closing of factories.” The operation in Mali, he says, may be an effort by France to show that it remains a great power, but the truth is that its ability to continue this effort is severely constrained by money and public opinion, which though favorable now would turn sharply if there were more French casualties. . . .

Some of this labor involves the French moving into conceptual space that was seen, not so long ago, as indisputably American. The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy asserts that Libya and Mali have left France playing a role once played by the United States, that of setting the tone for democracy and peace around the world. In a world dogged by relativist politics, only France is standing up for democracy as an inalienable right. Yet Marc-Henri Figuier, a former colonel in the Foreign Legion and now chief executive of ESEI, a French security-policy consulting firm, says that France needs to strike a balance between its ability and willingness to act on its own and the need to draw in allies. “Isolation is a risk,” says Figuier. “We need to act without arrogance, and do all we can to draw in our partners and allies into collective action.” Despite its low public profile in Mali, the United States has been invaluable in providing intelligence and other support services to the French.

Heisbourg believes that the domestic political significance of Mali is limited to the fact that “running a war competently is good for national morale. Seeing our guys doing a great job is essentially pleasing. The beauty of the Mali intervention for the French is that it’s the best of all worlds. It’s without national interest. It’s something where the French have a competitive edge. And they can do it broadly in line with American interest and do it more elegantly than the Americans would. . . .”

“There really are very, very few allies that can project power outside their own territory like the French can. It was the British and French, now it’s really only the French. It has a military uniquely capable of projecting power [says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution].”

The final judgment on France’s interventions in Libya and Mali will take time. Its diplomatic activity on Syria has yet to stop the fighting there.

But what cannot be doubted is that France has shown itself willing to act at moments when its global peers have not. Its planes, helicopters, and paratroopers have become the steel tip in the emerging battle for democracy and stability in Africa.

Philip Delves Broughton, a former Paris bureau chief for London’s Daily Telegraph, is author of The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life.  (graphic: Daily Beast)