There must be many times when President Francois Hollande wishes he had remained the back-room boy he always was.

Watching his ratings plummet even lower than Sarkozy's at his most unpopular, it surely can only be his deep commitment to socialism that keeps him going. Can't it?

But for an incident in a New York hotel, involving former finance minister and boss of the International Monetary Fund, Dominic Strauss Kahn, Hollande would have happily remained the indecisive party middle-manager he was thought to be. And DSK would have been a shoo-in for president in spite of his many sexual foibles, known and ignored by the establishment elite.

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Hollande was once nicknamed the Pizza Delivery Boy for his habit of cycling to work on a three-wheeler, then Monsieur Flamby after a particularly wobbly, bland pudding. But he shrugged off such taunts to push his controversial tax proposals, his hiring of more administrators and his reduction of the retirement age in a pure socialist package critics say will drive France further into economic gloom.

Until a few weeks ago he seemed destined to wobble further down the snake of unpopularity. Then, like many a beleaguered leader, he was given an "opportunity" which will prove to be a godsend or, should he fail, a poisoned chalice.

War has often been seen as a good career move by embattled premiers and presidents. Today France is at war – however it is dressed up – in its old backyard, Africa, fighting Islamic insurgents rebelling against a corrupt, though technically democratic, rule. In sending in his troops, Hollande is going against those very principles that sustain him.

He is known to have the left's innate abhorrence of colonialism. Indeed in Algeria recently he was applauded by the parliament when he virtually said sorry for France's takeover and subsequent brutality in later dealings.

He has vowed to downsize the military presence of France in its former colonies and continued Sarkozy's warnings that the time had passed when they could look to the old mother country as their gendarmerie.

But France of course still wants to retain the links with La Francafrique, the often corrupt network of help for trade and minerals set up when it pulled out of Africa. It wants to retain its arms industry in those and neighbouring areas while tip-toeing away from any colonial past (rather like Britain, for that matter).

For now, though, Hollande has the rest of the western world and many African states on his side. France is fighting, so the story goes, extremists incited by al-Qaeda who could turn the country into a base from which to launch further attacks on Europe.

This is a war, France emphasises, against terrorism and not a return to its post-colonialism habit of interfering in its former territories.

The president's promise to the country that the action would take only several weeks has the ring of a familiar story we've heard increasingly since 9/11 and even before in Northern Ireland and the Lebanon.

For now, so early in the battle and despite the siege at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, which saw 38 workers die in retaliation, French public opinion has been relatively benign and considered. Algerian fury at France's overflights to Mali has been reported in the French press but in a muted way.

There are reports of atrocities committed by Malian troops and the French government counters that its targeted strikes have minimised civilian losses. More than 2300 troops, to be aided by African forces and with UN backing, are, at the time of writing, in Mali.

Military casualties have reportedly been light. The French have yet to see returning body-bags which will shake the as-yet almost quasi-indifference of the population.

Undoubtedly there is tension in the major cities, particularly Paris after the Islamists' threat to take the fight to the very heart of France. It will be an all-too-real threat if, as accepted by the people if not the politicians, heavy-handed military interference only radicalises moderate Islamists.

Last year's shootings of soldiers and Jewish children in Montauban and Toulouse confirmed the other fear held by many French, that dormant al-Qaeda cells are simply waiting to be activated.

There is little hope that Hollande will achieve his aim and withdraw troops from Mali in several weeks. The Malian government asked for help months ago and a carefully worked-out plan was to have seen a complex EU-backed retraining of the army in a build-up to new, democratic elections.

The militants' actions and movements towards the capital bounced France into once again playing the role of gendarme in its old hunting grounds. With so many factions now in play and the woeful Malian army on the verge of being out of control, France is set for a lengthy stay if any stability is to be restored.

As he ponders a war growing murkier every day, President Hollande must wish for a simpler time when he was merely a whipping boy for France's fiscal problems.

For him war may not be a good career move, more likely the poisoned chalice of a history returning to haunt a country which is only now starting to face up to its less than glorious colonial past.