Paris: Francois Hollande’s decision to order French forces into battle in Mali represents a watershed moment for a president derided by his critics as a compulsive ditherer.
A stagnating economy, a crippling debt crisis and a string of policy U-turns and abandoned promises have all combined to send the 58-year-old Socialist’s approval ratings into freefall in the eight months since he was elected as France’s head of state and commander-in-chief.
A complicated private life in which his girlfriend has appeared to be influencing appointments because of a feud with the mother of his four children has not helped Hollande establish an air of authority around the Elysee Palace.
The crisis in Mali, however, has offered him the chance to forge a different image in the eyes of French voters, albeit an opportunity fraught with risk.
“With all military action there are risks involved,” Hollande’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared bullishly at the weekend.
“But what we have seen with Francois Hollande is that when the time came for a decision to be made, his hand did not tremble.”
Arguably Hollande was left with no decision to make after Islamist forces last week advanced into positions in central Mali that left the capital Bamako, home to 6,000 French nationals, vulnerable to attack.
Nevertheless, the unleashing of France’s warplanes on Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic groups in the former colony has, so far, won broad approval at home and around the world.
The feeling in Brussels, London and Washington seems to be that France has taken on a task that, while potentially messy, is one that someone had to accept. Dissenting voices have been rare.
Hollande came to power insisting that France’s days of meddling in the internal affairs of its former colonies in Africa were over.
He has worked assiduously to build a new relationship with Algeria and there are signs that his efforts to consign decades of mistrust and misunderstanding to the dustbin of history have paid a diplomatic dividend.
In perhaps the most surprising development of the Mali crisis so far, the government in Algiers on Sunday allowed French Rafale fighter jets to fly over the country’s airspace on their way to bombing Islamist bases in northern Mali.
“Mali could be a turning point in his term of office,” said political expert Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute.
“Up until now every decision he took was systematically attacked or criticised by the opposition, but that is not an option in this case when national unity is required.”
In the early hours of Monday, it appeared that French airpower had stemmed the Islamists advance in the centre and inflicted significant damage on some of their northern bases.
Those successes offered Hollande and his political lieutenants grounds to defend a course of action that would appear to be at odds with the philosophy that led the president to remove French troops from counter-insurgency, anti-Islamist duties in Afghanistan as soon as he possibly could after being elected.
But the weekend also offered a reminder of just how easily a resort to military force can go wrong.
In the space of 48 hours, the French military suffered casualties in Mali and Somalia that critics will inevitably put down to naivete on the part of Hollande, his advisors and France’s security establishment.
Hollande’s own aides have recognised that the Islamist fighters confronted in central Mali were better equipped, armed and trained than they had anticipated.
Such candour is unusual and perhaps admirable but the admission that France had essentially failed to do its homework on the rebels is unlikely to have gone down well with the family of Lieutenant Damien Boiteux, the pilot killed after his helicopter was shot down by those unexpectedly well-armed militants.
In Somalia, an operation aimed at freeing an intelligence agent held by Islamist militants there since 2009 ended with a disastrous scoresheet of one French soldier dead, another one missing presumed dead and the likelihood that the hostage-takers had executed their captive.
It emerged on Sunday that the French special forces involved in the operation had been spotted as soon as they landed in Somalia, 3km from where the hostage was being held, ensuring the captors of their compatriot were tipped off and were waiting for them with more than twice the number of men.
Even if France can steer clear of similar debacles in Mali, there is no guarantee that Hollande will reap the benefit at the polls.
His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was widely praised as the architect of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-backed campaign that led to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi being ousted from power in 2011.
France’s involvement in that campaign was concluded without a single casualty but the voters still turned away from Sarkozy at the polls a year later.
“Foreign policy,” Sarkozy was later to lament, “when it goes wrong you get the blame, when it goes right, you don’t get any credit.”