PARIS — Cracks in France's united front behind military action in Mali began to appear on Wednesday as concern mounted over the expanding scale of the operation and the reluctance of other Western powers to commit troops.
An intervention initially presented as limited to airstrikes and the defense of the capital Bamako has escalated dramatically since the weekend, which has raised concerns among some politicians..
French troops Wednesday engaged Islamist fighters in western Mali, defense officials have confirmed that the ground force will grow rapidly to 2,500 men, and airstrikes have been extended to the north.
"Supporting the troops does not preclude asking what the military strategy is," said Laurent Wauquiez, a vice-president of the UMP, France's main, center-right opposition party. "We will very soon have more men on the ground than we had in Afghanistan. Except in Afghanistan we were not alone.
"We are told we will have African support but it is reasonable to ask if we're also going to be supported, on the ground, by the organized, structured armed forces we are used to working with. I'm thinking of Britain, the United States, and Germany," he said.
France's NATO allies have expressed strong moral support for the intervention and offered various forms of logistical support while ruling out sending any of their own combat troops.
In France, the action was originally backed across the political spectrum, with the exception of the far left, and by 75 percent of voters, according to the latest poll.
"When our troops are in action, French citizens are exposed and hostages are under threat, national unity must come first," said UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope. "But there is one major concern, that France is alone in this operation."
Former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing said Hollande should have limited France's action to the defense of Bamako before the arrival of African troops.
"Airstrikes in the north and east of the country will hit the civilian population and repeat the pointless destruction of the war in Afghanistan with the same result," he wrote in Le Monde.
His comments echoed those of Dominique de Villepin, a Gaullist former prime minister, who warned at the weekend that the Mali mission was destined to fail because its objectives were not clear.
Philippe Meunier, a UMP member of the parliamentary defense commission, broke ranks with the party's leadership by claiming Hollande was directly responsible for the death of helicopter pilot Lieutenant Damien Boiteux, France's first casualty.
Meunier argued that the push south by Islamist fighters which triggered France's intervention, had happened because Hollande had given them the impression he would not send combat troops.
"The repeated statements that France would only provide technical back-up for an African force convinced the Islamists to head for Bamako before they arrived," Meunier said.
That meant French forces were ill-prepared for the intervention, he added. "Our army had to go in with unarmored helicopters, which resulted in the death of one of our pilots who was shot by a light weapon."
Green MP Noel Mamere also questioned the legitimacy of the action, distancing himself from the supportive stance of the leadership of a party that has a number of ministers in Hollande's government.
"It is said we responded to an appeal from the president of Mali, but isn't this president a mere puppet of the military who will not hesitate to overthrow him?" Mamere said.
© AFP 2013