“We must stop the rebels’ offensive, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands – creating a threat for Africa and even for Europe,” his foreign minister Laurent Fabius told reporters to justify backing Mali’s dilapidated national army.

For months, military planners in Paris had been working on discreet and limited support for an African-led effort due later this year to try and drive Islamists out of France’s ex-colony.

That scenario was swiftly overtaken on Thursday as rebels captured the central town of Konna that is a gateway towards Bamako 600 km (375 miles) further south.

With Mali’s army impotent, Hollande ordered the first military strikes of his career. Now France has deployed troops, C-160 transport aircraft, attack helicopters and has Rafale jets on standby the question is: where does it go from here?