The rewards of team effort in Mali
France is bonding with former colonies despite past enmity and religious divide
"If I could have one wish, it would be that the French Army stays in the Sahara, that they create a base here. I'm really scared that if they leave, the jihadists will come back. If France had not intervened in Konna, we would no longer be talking about Mali."
The words of one of the tiny Christian minority in predominantly Muslim Mali? Indeed not, but of local, Moustapha Ben Essayati, speaking to a reporter from the UK's Press Association in Timbuktu on 2 February as France's President François Hollande visited the city the French Army "helped" to liberate a week ago.
Mr Hollande, along with his Foreign and Development Minister, Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and others headed to the world renowned Djingareyber Mosque to speak to waiting dignitaries.
Everywhere in the city, jubilant crowds shouted "Vive la France", "Vive François Hollande".
Accompanied by Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traoré, President Hollande told the waiting journalists:
"We are serving a cause defined within the United Nations' framework...to bring the entire Malian territory under the legitimate authority of the Malian President and then the leaders who will be elected by the Malians."
Adding that France was not there to interfere in Mali's internal politics - "I have enough to do with French politics," Mr Hollande quipped - he emphasised that France had answered a call for help from Mali's President.
As with all Northern Mali for the best part of a year, Timbuktu was put under the strictest interpretation of Sharia law by the Muslim extremists and many people were subjected to harsh and wantonly cruel punishments. Other actions by the jihadists, like the destruction of much of the Djingareyber Mosque's renowned library were seen in Islamic circles as excessive and the intention of the combined such actions could only have been to cower the people and destroy their culture.
Little wonder then that President Hollande's boldness in sending French Forces into Mali on 10 January has made him a hero in that country. His actions have also garnered praise from other leaders in the West. Visiting US Vice President Joe Biden on 4 February told Mr Hollande that: "… (we) applaud your decisiveness and the incredible competence and capability of your military forces." Biden was thanked in turn for America's "political, material and logistical support."
For all France's apparent success, a couple of very fundamental problems remain that could spoil everything. Not that the jihadists have fled into the desert and may return, though that is a possibility. The first problem is how the Malian Government is going to deal with its "white" Tuareg minority. They have long felt marginalised and victimised by the "black" majority in Bamako.
Although making up only 10 per cent of Mali's 15 million, they are responsible for letting the better armed, supplied and financed (by the Gulf area) extremists into Northern Mali in the first place only to be defeated and pushed aside in June 2012.
As important for Mali's long-term existence is the formation – and soon – of a competent government, for despite periods of relative prosperity since independence from France the level of corruption often combined with varying degrees of repression has been too often the norm.
Big problems remain for the French and Malians in the face of a determined enemy in a notoriously lawless desert region. Yet there's much to be optimistic about.
The vast majority of Mali's Muslims (90 per cent of the population) hate the extremists and want the French to stay – for good.
The Tuaregs in Mali too late realised their mistake but secular in any case, they are eager to fight alongside the French in order to hunt down and expel the jihadists. They are not yet willing to speak to the Mali Government and still demand an independent state of "Azawad".
Could the UK possibly play the role here of honest broker?
Last but not least, the actions of Muslim extremists in North Africa have brought together France with its erstwhile colony/region, Algeria. The Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) saw atrocities committed by both sides and ended the lives of nearly 500,000 causing very deep enmity.
But now they are talking and Algeria is allowing France certain rights of passage, especially for refuelling its jets and air transports. This is quite something.
All goes to show that Tuareg, Malian or Algerian Muslim; Malian or French Christian, religion is not the issue. All are against terrorists.