In Mali, “France is paying the price for its own ambiguity”, according to an expert


France has increased pressure on Mali’s military junta since the West African regional group ECOWAS imposed harsh sanctions on the country over the weekend. While the Malian junta calls for demonstrations on Friday against international sanctions and pressure, particularly from Paris, the stage is set for increased tension between the two countries. AXADLETM discussed the implications with Antoine Glaser, a leading French specialist in Africa.

Anti-French sentiment has been rising in Mali in recent months, and it peaked this week after the main West African regional bloc announced tough sanctions against the country on January 9.

Mali’s military junta urged people to take to the streets on Friday to “support the homeland” against West African sanctions and international pressure – mainly from the country’s former colonial power, France.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sanctions were in response to the postponement of the junta’s electoral timetable, and they were immediately backed by France. The restrictions, which include trade embargoes and border closures, have seen Air France suspend flights to Mali this week.

France has since pressed the EU to comply with ECOWAS sanctions and on Thursday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Mali’s military junta to set an “acceptable electoral calendar”.

Mali’s diplomatic disgrace was sparked by the May 25, 2021 coup – the second in as many years – which saw junta leader Colonel Assimi Goïta attempt to tighten military control despite calls international relations to a return to civilian rule.

Relations between Mali and France have collapsed since the coup, with French President Emmanuel Macron canceling a December trip to the West African country. While the official French reason for Macron’s cancellation 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 into counter-terrorist missions after a withdrawal of French troops.

Nearly a decade after 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 wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping the West African nation. Social media sites exploded with allegations about Françafrique, referring to the opaque historical ties between France and its former African colonies.

AXADLETM 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, “Le Piège africaine de Macron”. [Macron’s African Trap], which he co-wrote with Pascal Airault.

AXADLETM :Why the social media space in West Africaburst of anti-French messages? Is anti-French resentment rising in Mali?

Anthony Glaser:In Africa, France exists as a kind of historical anachronism. While the continent is globalizing, the French military presence gives the impression to a large part of the population that Paris still wants to pull the strings at the old Françafrique. And this is less and less accepted by Malian youth, and more generally by all African youth.

This is why Macron organized the New Africa-France summit in Montpellier [in October 2021]. By inviting only members of civil society 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 relations with Africa at the summit

Obviously, within the framework of the ECOWAS sanctions, one should 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 of Russia, which wants to impose its mark on the continent.

F24:Relations between France and Mali have already been strained 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 official position of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that it no longer wants to be on the front line of African internal 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’sMahamat Deby and Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo]He wanted to show that he was not on the front line and protect himself behind ECOWAS. This is one of the main reasons why the meeting was canceled.

However, 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 establish its authority on the international scene. Without Africa, France is weakened. It is thus caught in the trap of this balance between African interests and international interests.

And the accession of France to the rotating presidency of the EU 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 ECOWAS sanctions, is there a risk of escalating tensions?

AG:In this politico-military-diplomatic imbroglio, the situation will objectively become very difficult for the Quai d’Orsay [French Foreign Ministry]. We have already seen that [on Thursday] when Mali condemned France for flying an A400M military plane into the country from Ivory Coast. Bamako claimed he violated Malian airspace and breached the sanctions overflight ban. France has argued that military flights were not affected by the measures, but the episode sounds like a warning.

Moreover, one wonders how Operation Barkhane [France’s counter-terrorism operation in theSahelregion that Macron has started to reduce from its initial 5,000-strong force]can continue. Firstly because it has no other choice, in this immense territory, than to resort to air means, but also because the deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group poses many operational questions.

F24: In this context, shouldn’t France speed up the withdrawal of its troops from the country?

AG:France will not take this decision in the three months preceding the presidential election, while the security situation in the country has further deteriorated. He wants to avoid an Afghan-style debacle at all costs.

It is important to understand that each country serves its own interests in this matter. Some ECOWAS members fear coups in their own countries. Algeria, too, supports the sanctions only reluctantly. Everyone has their program here.

F24: Could ECOWAS sanctions further damage France’s image in other countries in the region?

AG:Obviously, there is a risk of backfire. Anti-French sentiment already exists in all the former colonies and is particularly strong in the Sahel. It was abundantly clear when a French military convoy en route 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 neighbours. Senegal, for example, is heavily dependent on its trade relations with Bamako. A whole part of its business is now at a standstill. Of course, Senegalese critics will be able to use it in an ideological discourse and, consequently, participate in further degrading the image of France.

(This is a translation of the original in French.)


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