In Mali, ‘France is paying the price for its own ambiguity,’ expert says
France has increased pressure on Mali’s military junta since the West African regional group ECOWAS enforced tough sanctions on the country over the weekend. With the Malian junta calling for protests on Friday against the sanctions and international pressure, particularly from Paris, the stage is set for increased tension between the two countries. FRANCE 24 discussed the implications with Antoine Glaser, a leading French expert on Africa.
Anti-French sentiment has been running high in Mali over the past few months, and it reached a peak this week after the main West African regional bloc announced tough sanctions on the country January 9.
Mali’s military junta urged people to take to the streets on Friday in “support the homeland” protests against the West African sanctions and international pressure – primarily from the country’s former colonial power, France.
The sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were in response to the junta’s delayed election timetable, and they were immediately backed by France. The restrictions, which include trade embargos and border closures, has seen Air France suspend its flights to Mali this week.
France has since pressed the EU to fall in line with the ECOWAS sanctions and on Thursday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Mali’s military junta to set an “acceptable election timeline”.
Mali’s diplomatic fall from grace was sparked by the May 25, 2021, coup – the second in as many years – which saw junta leader Colonel Assimi Goïta attempting to reinforce military control despite international calls for a return to civilian rule.
Relations between Mali and France have plummeted since the coup, with French President Emmanuel Macron canceling a December trip to the West African nation. While the official French reason for the cancellation by Macron was the Covid-19 pandemic, it followed a war of words between Paris and Bamako over Mali’s decision to invite mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group in counterterror missions after a French troop drawdown.
Nearly a decade into France’s military intervention in Mali to stem a jihadist surge in the Sahel, the security situation in Mali has deteriorated. The blame game between Paris and Bamako has done little to quell the tide of anti-French sentiment sweeping the West African nation. Social media sites have exploded with Françafrique allegations, referring to the historical opaque ties between France and its former African colonies.
FRANCE 24 discussed the impact and implications of this latest chapter in Franco-Malian relations with Antoine Glaser, a leading French expert on Africa and author of several books, including his latest, “Macron’s African trap” [Macron’s African Trap], which he co-authored with Pascal Airault.
FRANCE 24: Why has the West African social media space erupted with anti-French messages? Is anti-French resentment rising in Mali?
Antoine Glaser: In Africa, France exists as a sort of historical anachronism. While the continent is becoming more global, the French military presence gives the impression to a large section of the population that Paris still wants to pull the strings in the old Françafrique style. And this is less and less accepted by Malian youth, and more generally by all African youth.
This was why Macron organized the New Africa-France summit in Montpellier [in October 2021]. By inviting only civil society members and excluding heads of state, he hoped to defuse this citizen discontent by turning the image of Françafrique on its head.
>> Read more: Macron seeks to rejuvenate relationship with Africa at summit
Obviously, in the context of the ECOWAS sanctions, one must not overlook the manipulation of this anti-French sentiment by the authorities in Bamako, who exacerbate nationalism and make France the ideal culprit. Not to mention the manipulation by Russia, which wants to make its mark on the continent.
F24: Relations between France and Mali have already been tense for several months. What is Macron’s strategy with Bamako?
AG: In my opinion, in Mali, France is paying the price for its own ambiguity. The French Foreign Ministry’s official position is that it no longer wants to be in the frontline of internal African affairs and that its only mission is the fight against jihadism.
The aborted meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Assimi Goïta in December illustrates this strategy. The French leader refused to come alone and asked to be accompanied by his African counterparts [Chad’s Mahamat Deby and Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo] He wanted to show that he was not in the frontline and to protect himself behind ECOWAS. This was one of the main reasons why the meeting was canceled.
Yet, when it comes to Mali, because of its diplomatic influence, France is always at the forefront of all discussions. The reason is simple: Its military power and its presence in Africa are the basis of its authority on the international scene. Without Africa, France is weakened. It is thus trapped in this balancing act between African and international interests.
And France’s assumption of the EU’s rotating presidency reinforces this phenomenon. Especially since, for months, Emmanuel Macron has been trying to involve as many European countries as possible in the fight against terrorism in Africa via the Takuba force [a task force composed mainly of special forces units from several EU nations].
F24: With the ECOWAS sanctions, is there a risk of escalating tensions?
AG: In this political-military-diplomatic imbroglio, the situation will objectively become very difficult for the Quai d’Orsay [French Foreign Ministry]. We already saw this [on Thursday] when Mali condemned France for flying an A400M military plane into the country from Ivory Coast. Bamako claimed it breached Malian airspace and violated the overflight ban under the sanctions. France argued that military flights were not affected by the measures, but the episode sounds like a warning.
Moreover, one wonders how the Barkhane operation [France’s counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region that Macron has started to reduce from its initial 5,000-strong force] will be able to continue. First of all, because it has no other choice, in this immense territory, than to take recourse to aerial means, but also because the deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group raises many operational questions.
F24: In this context, shouldn’t France accelerate its troop withdrawal from the country?
AG: France will not make this decision in the next three months before the presidential election, when the security situation in the country has further deteriorated. It wants to avoid an Afghanistan-style debacle at all costs.
It is important to understand that each country serves its own interests in this matter. Some ECOWAS members fear coup d’état in their own countries. Algeria, too, supports the sanctions only half-heartedly. Everyone has their own agenda here.
F24: Could the ECOWAS sanctions further damage France’s image in other countries in the region?
AG: Obviously, there is a risk of a boomerang effect. Anti-French sentiment already exists in all the former colonies and is particularly strong in the Sahel. The was abundantly clear when a French military convoy on its way from Ivory Coast to Mali in November was stopped [in Burkina Faso] by angry protesters.
The ECOWAS sanctions will also have very negative consequences for Mali’s neighbors. Senegal, for example, relies heavily on its trade relations with Bamako. A whole part of its trade is now at a standstill. Of course, Senegalese critics will be able to use this in an ideological discourse and, consequently, participate in further degrading France’s image.
(This is a translation of the original in French.)