French troops make their way down a street in Timbuktu, Mali. (Harouna Traore / Associated…)
PARIS — Many French citizens support the country's military mission in Mali, which as of Thursday did not include any reported deaths of French troops, despite concern about possible retaliation by Islamic militants, polls show.
About two-thirds of respondents in several polls of French adults said they backed the government's decision to send troops to the West African country, a former French colony, in response to a Malian government request for help in controlling Islamist militias.
French President Francois Hollande has seen his popularity rise for the first time since he was elected in May, polls show.
Analysts and pollsters said the public support for the operation, which France launched Jan. 11, could come to an abrupt end if there are French casualties or if the intervention drags on.
For now the public mood appears generally calm even though France's security level was raised to "reinforced red," one level below the maximum of "scarlet," after the start of the mission and militants' threats to "strike the heart of France," analysts said.
"There is no great climate of fear, even though the security rating has been upped," said Jean-Yves Camus, an Islamist specialist with the Paris-based Institute for International Strategic Relations, or IRIS.
"The French are aware that the intervention could provoke a retaliation, and we know that this has been threatened," Camus said. "What we don't know for sure is if the Islamists really have the capacity to act on French territory. I think it is more likely to be [French] interests and nationals in the sub-Saharan Africa zone."
Jerome Fourquet of the French Institute of Public Opinion, or IFOP, said two surveys conducted by the agency shortly after the start of the mission and one week later showed similar results: support by 63% of the more than 2,000 respondents.
Another poll published Jan. 19 in the Sud-Ouest newspaper found that 65% of the 1,005 people queried favored the mission. Some polls have indicated support as high as 75%.
At the same time, about three-quarters of respondents in an IFOP poll Jan. 19 said the Mali operation had increased the risk of a terrorist attack on France or French interests abroad.
France has said the operation was necessary to prevent the rise of a terrorist state capable of launching attacks in Europe.
French officials had raised the country's security level to red in March after gunman Mohamed Merah killed three soldiers, three children and a rabbi in and near Toulouse. Before he was shot to death by French police, Merah, 23, said he had been radicalized after serving time in prison for petty crimes and that he had attended Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
In October, French intelligence services arrested several people suspected of being members of an Islamist terrorist network in Paris, the eastern city of Strasbourg and in the Cote d'Azur region.
"These events meant the sense of threat was already high, whether that be fear of an organized network or a lone person," Fourquet said.
The French sense the legitimacy of the mission in Mali and understand the government's message about preventing danger, he said.
"We're not talking about war in a country a long way from France and with no connection to France, like Afghanistan," he said. "Here we are at the door of Europe, and this has led to a heightened sense that what France is doing is right."
Willsher is a special correspondent.