Western allies have also voiced support for the French action with some offers of help — but, significantly, no troops.
"We stand by our French allies and they can count on U.S. support," said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, in the office of the defense secretary, adding that information sharing and logistics will be the likely contribution.
The U.S. was also expected to send in drones. Britain agreed to send aircraft to help transport troops. Germany offered political support by firmly said no combat troops.
Francois Heisbourg, international analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research summed up up the French argument like this: "A friendly state is on the verge of being put under the jihadi boot, they ask us to intervene ... If they go under, we have a much bigger terrorism problem."
He compared the situation to the Afghanistan of 2001, when French troops joined the NATO mission there. Last month, France drew the curtain on its Afghanistan engagement, pulling out the last of its fighting troops. The U.S. is winding up its military operation next year.
Then comes Mali.
France has some 6,000 citizens and economic and strategic interests throughout the Sahel desert region that includes Mali, interests to be protected.
But the real fear is that a state run by radical Islamists could spread the doctrine throughout the Sahel and do what al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the leading radical groups in Mali, has failed to do from its home base in neighboring Algeria — strike across the Mediterranean.
At the moment, the threat is limited to Mali and potentially its neighbors — where terrorists can target western interests but lack the structure to do damage elsewhere, said Gohel said of the Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank. "But they are growing in ascendancy. ... We're seeing the Talibanization process taking place inside Mali."
French authorities worry that the radicals could contaminate the diaspora of Malians in France and elsewhere, much as some Algerians in France took up the jihadist cause in the 1990s, sending weapons and money to Islamist insurgents in Algeria — and carrying out terrorist attacks in France.
What may make this campaign different is Hollande's promise to end a long-standing informal policy of paternalism with former African colonies and fawning gratitude in return. The policy, known as France-Afrique, was widely detested by all those outside the circles of privilege and special favors.
The French "are keenly aware of the need not to lose the political support of the Africans, collectively and individually," said Heisbourg.
Experts say France must avoid ballooning their mission.
But it's not easy for France to pull out of former colonies where it maintains ties and sees security concerns — and sometimes is asked by the local government for protection. As Heisbourg noted: "We've been in Chad for ... 45 years."
Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.