On January 11, 2013, the French military launched Opération Serval, an attempt to assume command in Mali, France’s former colony. Using fighter jets and ground troops, France intervened on the side of the Malian armed forces to defend the country against a litany of militias advancing from the north: the Islamic Toureg fighters of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), the Salafist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ag Cherif’s secular Toureg alliance known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), as well as free-floating drug gangs. The stated goal was to liberate the occupied cities and areas and to protect the estimated six thousand foreigners in Mali, most of whom were French-Malian dual citizens.
The scene the French soldiers encountered on the streets of Mali when they marched in days later could hardly have been predicted. The elite troops of the erstwhile colonial power, from which Mali won independence in 1960 (the so-called Year of Africa) were greeted with effusive cheering and a demonstrative display of France’s national symbol, the Tricolour. Only a year prior, France was the target of sharp criticism from Mali, which at the time was experiencing a political and humanitarian crisis. The complaints focused not so much on France’s shameful historical role, but rather on the fact that the French had neglected to secure peace and order in their African sphere of influence (Françafrique) after their 2011 intervention in Libya—one of the causes of Mali’s crisis. But now the French and Malian flags hung in the streets side-by-side in intimate unity, as if the two nations’ friendship was the most natural thing in the world. Foreign correspondents reported on flag shortages in Bamako and Timbuktu. The photographs they dispatched showed streets brimming with flags: Malians who had strapped the Tricolour to their car antennas and motorbikes, Malian soldiers wearing the flag as a turban, and Malian civilians who had dressed themselves in flags. Asked for his opinion on the pictures of flag-waving Malians, Senegalese author and publisher Boubacar Boris Diop answered that, contrary to all reports, the pictures were staged propaganda. If they did suggest “an immense relief,” as characterized by one reporter at the time, this is precisely what made them disturbing, because it demonstrated how fully the population had been let down by its own country’s political class.
This temporary reoccupation of Mali constituted an act of military and political reterritorialization. The West African country had to be saved from territorial and political ruin by France’s intervention. But the flagrant reversal of Mali’s independence, under the premise of protecting its national sovereignty, caused the most diverse political camps, both within and outside of the country, to speak out against recolonization. The display of the French flag during the military intervention was itself an intervention into today’s (local and global) image space. As an abstraction of national and imperial identity and power, the flag organizes the field of the visible, communicating ideologies, ideas, and feelings in an often contradictory manner.
According to ethnologist Raymond Firth, the national flag isn’t only “a highly condensed focus of sentiment,” but also a deeply heterological symbol. It is open to contradictory interpretations and uses, and can even be used against the nation it represents—if only because “the sentiment component” is essentially uncontrollable. The symbolic power of the flag is obvious, and thus it is necessary to demonstrate its ambiguity. To what extent is a flag not only a symbol, but also a medium? Flags exist in different manifestations and materials, from the sewn flag on a mast to the GIF file. In essence, they are artificial, manufactured objects. Sewn or printed, their symbolic effect is a result both of antecedent production—from graphic development to the sewing machine—and formal and informal use. The hoisting or waving of the flag, but also its burning and tearing, are elements of a complex performativity grounded in history. The flag serves as a vehicle for political-identical argumentation; but it should also be considered in its materiality—as hardware.
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