For historical but also geographic reasons, France considers the Malian crisis one of its top external priorities. Facing the risk of seeing the town of Mopti captured by jihadists, French President François Hollande has ordered the French military to intervene in the Sahelian country.
Two days after Hollande's decision to launch "Operation Serval" on January 11, former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin expressed his opposition to the Socialist government's move.
As the symbol of opposition to the US war in Iraq, De Villepin's views matter. They also rightly point at the failures in Afghanistan and Libya, while evoking a powerful ideal: "La guerre ce n'est pas la France" - "war is not France" - declared De Villepin.
But a moral stance does not constitute an answer to an immediate danger.
The affirmation of an ideal cannot stop the creation of a "Sahelistan," a realm of brutality and obscurantism, by fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or from Ansar Dine.
Since no responsible political leader could accept the creation of a "sub-Saharan Afghanistan," firm actions had to be taken to stop the expansion of Azawad, already a state which declared secession from Mali, and an objective threat to the stability of Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Chad and also to Europe's security.
Contrary to what De Villepin implies, nothing has indicated hitherto that what he calls the "neo-con virus" is influencing Hollande's foreign policy.
When he became French foreign minister eight months ago, Laurent Fabius quoted Jean Jaurès, one of the greatest figures of pacifism: "Le courage, c'est d'aller à l'idéal et de comprendre le réel" - "courage is to tend toward the ideal and to understand the reality."
In other words, the statesman aims to reach the ideal but cannot ignore reality. He has to strike a subtle balance between the purity of his intellectual principles and the imperfection of the world's furor.
Besides, Hollande's government anticipated, in a responsible calculation, that its resolute actions would not add to the divisions of the international community.
Before the French president authorized the use of force, the UN special representative for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, declared during a recent visit to Bamako, capital of Mali, that the Islamist push is of serious concern and could lead to "extraordinary" decisions from the international community.
During "Operation Serval," Algeria allowed the use of its air space, and after the French strikes, African Union chairperson Thomas Boni Yayi expressed his support. While the US and the UK offered logistical assistance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized the dangers of terrorist activities in northern Mali.
On the fourth day of the operation, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the Malian rebels' latest offensive and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the international response to Mali's request for assistance to counter what he called "the troubling push southward by armed and terrorist groups."
In this context, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is accelerating preparations for an operation to help Malian troops retake the north, the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, in what will be a long and perilous mission.
But the future of Mali, and beyond that, the Sahel region, cannot be separated from a long-term effort for socio-economic development backed by a cohesive international community.
If radical ideologies easily flourish in poverty and despair, Mali, among the 25 poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of less than $700, remains an easy target for extremists.
In close partnership with the African Union and ECOWAS, the European Union, the US and China - Mali's largest export partner in 2011 - have the responsibility to co-design a series of mechanisms to change Sahel's path and, by doing so, to demonstrate that they are able to look at Africa not as a field for new forms of rivalries but as a land for synergies.
It is the role of the UN Security Council to create the conditions for better security in Sahel, but the call for an international conference on Mali could be useful to coordinate international actions on its socio-economic development.
The French military action to counter extremism did not affect the cohesion of the UN Security Council. Now, it is time for a unified community of nations to battle economic exclusion, the long-term ally of terrorism.
The author is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School, Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum. firstname.lastname@example.org