BAMAKO After winning adulation across Mali for a five month military offensive that crushed al Qaeda fighters, France is now frustrating some of its allies by pushing for a political settlement with a separate group of Tuareg rebels.
A standoff over how to restore Malian government authority to Kidal, the last town in the desert north yet to be brought under central control, is sowing resentment with Paris and could delay planned elections to restore democracy after a coup.
Mali's army has moved troops towards Kidal, a stronghold of the MNLA Tuareg separatists, but missed a self-imposed deadline this week to retake the Saharan town. France, which has its own forces camped outside, does not want Malian troops to march on the town, fearing ethnic bloodshed if it is taken by force.
"Paris blocks army at the gates of Kidal," read a headline in Le Matin, a weekly in Mali's capital Bamako.
Elections are planned for July in Mali to finally restore normalcy after a chaotic 18 months that saw Tuaregs launch a revolt, the military carry out a coup, al Qaeda-linked Islamists seize the north and 4,000 French troops arrive to dislodge them.
Many in government and on the streets of Bamako blame the January 2012 uprising by the Tuareg MNLA for unleashing the other calamities that nearly dissolved the country. Nationalists now want the army to march into Kidal to disarm the rebels.
France is instead backing secretive talks being held in neighboring Burkina Faso, designed to allow the July elections to take place, while urging Bamako to address Tuaregs' long-standing demands for autonomy for their desert homeland.
Clashes between Arabs and Tuaregs have shown that ethnic tension remains high.
The former colonial power, France won enthusiastic public support across Mali for its decision to send troops in January to crush the al Qaeda-linked fighters. French flags still flutter in parts of the dusty riverside capital, and President Francois Hollande was cheered as a liberator by huge crowds when he visited in February.
But goodwill is giving way to frustrations over Kidal, with many Malians questioning why France would not boldly confront the MNLA as it had done the coalition of al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Within the army, whose morale evaporated in a string of defeats last year, anger simmers over foreign interference.
"Our men are ready but we have not received the orders to enter the town. It is a political decision," said a senior Malian officer, who asked not to be named.
Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore, whom Paris has defended from military pressure, voiced support for dialogue with the MNLA on Friday in Paris ahead of a meeting with Hollande. He said plans for decentralization should satisfy the MNLA's demands.
But many in Mali, particularly those close to the army, are hostile towards dialogue. The official Twitter feed for Mali's presidency refers to the MNLA as terrorists.
Hollande rejects that label, saying the MNLA fought alongside French and African forces against the Islamists, providing intelligence on Islamists' positions.
"We have said we will are willing to aid the return of Malian civilian administration to Kidal to organize elections," Hollande said this week, appearing to rule out a military alternative. "We want a political dialogue, and I think that will happen."
"KIDAL WILL VOTE"
The MNLA stole back into Kidal after France's air and ground assault scattered the Islamists. The town has since been under awkward joint occupation by the MNLA with French troops and, for a time, their Chadian allies.
Defence Minister Yamoussa Camara promised parliament this month that Mali's forces would be in the town by May 15. Residents in northern Mali have reported movement towards Kidal for weeks, but the force has yet to arrive.
The Kidal region is home to just 0.5 percent of Mali's population - by far its least populated area - but the authorities say the national vote cannot take place without it.
"Kidal will vote like the rest of the country ... That's what Malians want," said Gamer Dicko, spokesman for the territorial administration ministry, tasked with organizing elections. "Not holding an election there would be a de facto split of the country."
Diplomats say talks are quietly underway in Burkina Faso to find a way of allowing the elections to proceed in Kidal, as a stepping stone to political talks with the MNLA and other armed groups once a permanent, elected government is in place.
"It is about finding a gentleman's agreement so the elections can take place in Kidal," a West African diplomat said, asking not to be named. "The transitional government will not find a definitive solution to the problem."
President Traore has named a former minister, Tiebile Drame, as special envoy to coordinate talks with northern groups.
Traore wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Drame had been named so that "Mali can keep control of the process", an apparent sign of frustration with the role played by a panoply of U.N. and African mediators.
Another diplomat said recent discussions in Bamako had revealed divisions between the Western position that more regional autonomy was needed to resolve the conflict and African nations' support for a tougher line on the rebels.
"African nations didn't criticize France directly but they were very critical of the MNLA," said the source.
Part of the difficulty of talks with the Tuaregs, diplomats say, is the divisions within their armed groups. The MNLA alone has 21 representatives on its negotiating commission.
A spokesman for the MNLA in Paris confirmed that contacts had been made with the Malian government through Burkina Faso mediators, but he said they were not official talks. He would not comment on the conditions needed for elections to go ahead.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff)