Tom Grein | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
When French forces entered northern Mali in 2013, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country’s direct involvement in the conflict would last “a matter of weeks.” Seven years on, France remains militarily bogged down in its former colony, and Paris faces a dual dilemma—growing regional jihadist movements and pressure to cease its involvement in Africa altogether. At present, 5,100 French troops are deployed in Central and West Africa to support Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso in their fight against jihadist groups. Though recent challenges, including the death of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter collision in Mali late last year, have challenged French resolve in the region. The future of Françafrique (France’s ‘sphere of influence’ in Africa) is uncertain.
Unlike other European nations, France has remained close to its former African colonies after President Charles De Gaulle granted their independence in 1960. Between 1960 and 2005, France conducted upwards of 46 military operations in its former territories. Intervention continues to this day, with prominent campaigns in Chad (2007-08), Djibouti (2008), Libya (2011), Mali (2013-14), Central African Republic (2013-16), and the Sahel (2014-present).
French activity in Africa is controversial both at home and abroad. Some argue French presence in Africa undermines France’s national security by incurring unnecessary animus in the region. Others argue France perpetuates a neo-colonial rule to achieve its contemporary geopolitical aims. Amid these critiques, Paris maintains its commitment to the internationally enshrined ‘responsibility to protect,’ and President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear, France will only stay at the request of the governments in the region.
While the five francophone heads of states reaffirmed their desire for France to stay in the region in January, recent anti-French protests in Bamako called on Paris to withdraw from Mali. Frustration has grown across the region with the uptick of jihadist attacks and a sense of French corruption, incompetence and neglect. The anti-French sentiment is also driven by previous foreign policy failures, particularly in Rwanda (1994), Côte d’Ivoire (2004) and Libya (2011).
Though the primary factor undermining French confidence in the region is the recent surge in Islamist strength.
By exploiting Africa’s weak political institutions and ethnic and religious schisms Islamist groups have grown exponentially in recent years. After the decline of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group now seeks to build a caliphate in Africa. By doing so, it is joining the chorus of regional jihadist forces including Boko Haram and the Al-Qaeda offshoot Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.
To put the situation in perspective, jihadist violence in Africa has doubled every year since 2015. A Human Rights Watch report found that 2019 had been the deadliest year since the start of Mali’s 2012 political crisis. Jihadist militants had conducted ethnic cleansing while running rampant across northern and central Mali. In recent months, over 300 soldiers have been killed from jihadist raids on four military bases in Niger and Mali. In March, some 92 Chadian soldiers were killed in the deadliest attack on government forces by Boko Haram in the country’s history.
In 2018 the European Union and France allocated 1.3 billion euros to fight terrorism in the Sahel. In September, West African leaders pledged an additional $1 billion. Washington has also provided financial and logistical support, but recently expressed its desire to drawdown in Africa as part of its foreign policy shift from counter-terrorism to Great Power competition. This reduction would end aid to French forces in the region.
Moreover, jihadist advances have brought pressure on French policy at home. A high ranking member of the French Foreign Ministry recently called Operation Barkhane (Mali) a quagmire for which France may face “popular pressure to leave.” Despite the French public’s relative support for counter-terrorism efforts in the region, strategic inertia and French loss of life—44 military deaths since 2013 and the 2019 helicopter collision which was the single worst incident since 1986—could begin to erode confidence.
The truth is that France needs its allies now more than ever to help prevent the Sahel from becoming a new cradle of Islamic fundamentalism.
What often elides discussion on this issue is an appreciation of France’s willingness to take on the fight, which is a unique position to hold in today’s age of isolationism and anti-colonialism. French military presence in Africa is also laudable considering its readiness to deploy forces in other theatres—for instance at home or in the Middle East—particularly amid calls of overextension from French security experts.
Washington’s drawdown in Africa would not only hinder French efforts to contain regional jihadist groups but also undercut its Great Power agenda as it would embolden other geopolitical contenders. President Macron recently denounced “foreign powers” for inciting anti-French sentiment amid reports of increased Russian activity in Africa, while China has emerged as a significant player on the continent in recent decades. It is, therefore, in the interests of France and the United States alike that they remain invested in the region.
The international community cannot allow the Sahel to turn into another Syria and Iraq. Françafrique is a primary bulwark against this fate. It should start to be treated as such in its moment of need.
Tom Grein is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.