PARIS – He has been praised as a war chief in Mali. Now, French President Francois Hollande has been awarded a U.N.-sponsored peace prize -- barely a year into his presidency and just months after launching his first war against Islamic extremists.
The prize givers and African leaders attending Wednesday's awards ceremony, including Malian president Dioncounda Traore, say Hollande deserves UNESCO's Felix Houphouet-Boigny prize precisely because they say the Mali intervention is about long-term peace for a volatile region.
But continued violence in northern Mali, terrorist attacks in neighboring Niger and the extremists' flight to troubled Libya underline the challenges of making that work.
"It may seem paradoxical to be awarded for peace after assuming responsibility for war," Hollande said in his speech at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. "But the decision I made on behalf of France had no other purpose than to end an aggression."
Before the French military intervention in January, northern Mali was overrun by a trio of al-Qaida-linked groups who threatened to move on the capital.
Paris has pledged to quickly pull out its troops from Mali, but the French military presence in the country will last for years, admitted the Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly. "We cannot fear the French presence... On the contrary, the French army helped us out of tight spot," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Hollande also won a cash prize worth $150,000 which he is donating to two organizations: the Network on Peace and Security for Women in the ECOWAS Region, and Solidarite Defense, which helps care for injured soldiers.
Hollande has promised to put an end to "Francafrique" -- a term used to describe the political, economic, and military relationship between France and its former African colonies, that Paris long used to insure its sphere of influence on the continent.
During his first trip in Africa as a president last October, he said in Dakar that he wanted "to write a new chapter" in the relationship. Hollande said he intended to break with the policies of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who said in a controversial speech in Dakar in 2007 that African man "has not fully entered history (...) never really launched himself into the future."
Hollande's war in Mali isn't without its critics.
"First of all, Hollande didn't impose peace in Mali, the massive deployment of forces was a bad answer to a real problem", said Odile Tobner, of the organization Survie, fighting against neocolonialism. She doesn't believe France's relationship with African leaders has changed, and noted the attendance at the award ceremony of the presidents of Chad --in office for more than 22 years -- and Gabon, where the head of state is the son of the former president.
The Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize -- named after the former president of Ivory Coast -- was created in 1989 to honor individuals and organizations that have made "a significant contribution to peace and stability around the world."
In 2009, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Barack Obama the decision drew criticism that it was premature, because of a perceived lack of a significant role of the U.S. president in conflicts abroad.