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Journalist murders prompt French to ask: How long will we be in Mali?

A few days after celebrating the release of four hostages seized in Niger, France – and its president – are now mourning two journalists killed by militants in Mali.

Each time the president of France gets a break from crushingly bad opinion polls, something offsets the bump.

Just last week, four hostages held for over a thousand days were rescued from Mali and safely brought home. President François Hollande was out front on the tarmac to greet the four men, who had been kidnapped in Niger while working at a uranium mine, delivering a happy ending to a three-year-old mystery.

Three days later two journalists in Mali were killed after interviewing a local leader in Kidal, a troubled town in northern Mali.

Today, France is mourning the deaths of the two veteran reporters, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, who were abducted Saturday as they left the home of a local leader and found shot shortly afterwards on a desert road. They were preparing a special report for the state-ownedRadio France Internationale (RFI), which is the main source of French news in the country’s former colonies and France’s best source of news from Africa. Their deaths were condemned as heinous and cold-blooded.

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Hollande faces symbolic devastation over this, too. France’s president sent troops to Mali in January, after rebels were gaining ground in the former French colony. It was, to date, his most successful decision in 18 months as president. The publicly widely supported it. There were no gaffes, U-turns, or indecision, the traits that have underscored most of his other policy choices.

Now, at least according to the right-wing Le Figaro in an editorial, a shadow has been cast over the one thing he has done right. 

The nation wonders: How long will France stay in Mali now and what will it ultimately accomplish? After initially beating back rebels, turning over security to the UN, and overseeing a peace deal signed and presidential elections in August, the security situation, especially in Kidal, has deteriorated. Northern Mali is marked by complex rivalries between ethnic Tuareg rebels, criminals, Islamic jihadis, and the new government.

The French government had said it planned to scale down its operations after legislative elections, from 3,000 troops to 1,000, according to The Wall Street Journal. But Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a French government spokeswoman, said today in response to the attack that France will “without doubt” have to reinforce its military presence in Mali.

Little is known about who exactly was behind the attack. France’s foreign ministry pointed to “an unidentified armed group” as the perpetrators. France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday morning on RTL radio that an investigation is ongoing to catch the perpetrators.

“A crime against journalists is a double crime: it’s a crime against people who were coldly assassinated, in odious conditions,” said Mr. Fabius Sunday. “But it is also a crime against freedom of information, and to be informed. The killers are those we are fighting against: the terrorist groups who reject democracy and reject elections.”