A Misunderstood France Finds Itself Increasingly Alone in the Sahel

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Alvaro Barrientos

After the build-up, America’s answer was almost a Gallic shrug. For weeks, ever since French President Emmanuel Macron gathered the leaders of five West African countries to present a united front over the spiraling war in the Sahel, France has been warning publicly about the dangers of the US pulling out its troops from the region. This week Macron dispatched his foreign minister to Washington to sweettalk Washington into staying the course. The answer was equivocal: no decision had been made yet.

Macron feels misunderstood. Facing protests at home over the death of French soldiers and protests in West Africa linking the current operations to France’s brutal colonial history, it seems that no one can see things his way – not his fellow citizens, not his Western allies and not even the people he believes he has sent troops to help.

Yet if Macron is misunderstood by the people of the Sahel, he has also misunderstood them. Standing between them are the ghosts of history, obscuring the view from the other side. The mistakes made by France in the past are preventing the right steps being taken in the present.

The January 13 meeting in Pau was a result of Macron’s irritation over anti-French protests in three West African countries. He is proving thin-skinned over such criticism and, at the news conference following the summit, his annoyance turned ugly. “I know who is dying for the citizens of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso,” he said. “It’s French soldiers.”

Such lack of grace is uncalled for and unfair. Soldiers from every one of the Sahel countries have died fighting against militants and – this is where Macron’s comments are so distasteful, by implying a hierarchy in death – in far greater numbers. An estimated 4,000 people died in 2019 across the five countries and barely a month passes without a massacre. Two days after the summit in France, 89 soldiers from Niger were killed in a single attack on a military base. In the month before, another attack had claimed 71 soldiers. The war in the Sahel is brutal, bloody and appears unwinnable.

But people of the Sahel are not the only ones protesting against the French mission in West Africa; people of France are too. The death of 13 soldiers in Mali in November was a profound shock to the country, its single heaviest loss of troops for almost four decades, and brought calls for Macron to pull out the troops. Even Western allies are skeptical. The response to the French plan for a pan-European force in the region has been lukewarm, to put it mildly, with no major European military power agreeing to take part.

If the war is becoming unwinnable, it is because it is also a battle with history. The intervention in West Africa started five years ago as a way of defending weak states from militia groups; it has ended up propping up unpopular governments and raised the ghosts of France’s long colonial history in the region.

Macron is acutely sensitive to the charge of meddling in the affairs of West Africans. But he is perhaps too sensitive.

The president does not seem to realize that those protesting against France’s involvement are also protesting against their own governments. Macron seems overly concerned at the anti-French demonstrations in Mali but appears unaware that for two years tens of thousands have regularly protested against the Malian government itself. Indeed, the entire Malian government resigned in April last year in response to protests over the government’s inability to get a grip on the violence.

France’s strategy is to deploy French troops to restrain the militias but not to interfere with the internal affairs of the countries concerned. But the militias are only a symptom of the larger political problem. The insurgency has found a foothold because of corruption, human trafficking and poverty. Without political pressure applied on the seats of government, military action in the deserts can only be a short-term fix. Yet so fearful are the French of any criticism that links current policies to their colonial legacy that they are actually hindering any real help for the people of the Sahel.

Mali is just one example. The current insurgency grew out of deep divisions between the north and the south of the country. The capital, Bamako is in the south. The north seeks the de-centralization of power, humanitarian aid and the restoration of basic services. But any dialogue about those issues has been postponed until security is restored. Yet it was the failure to deal with those issues that caused the violence to erupt in the first place.

Macron would do better to tie military assistance to political reform. But to do that he would first have to overcome his fear of being accused of colonial interference.

There is an irony in how the ghosts of the past have shaped the present in West Africa. Macron and his predecessor, Francois Hollande, who initiated the West Africa mission, originally saw it as a way to showcase a larger role for France in the world.

If they had brought other countries on board, it is likely Macron would today have been afforded some political cover: a demand for West African governments to reform would sound better coming from a grouping of African or European capitals, rather than Paris alone.

But that moment has passed. The longer the conflict drags on, the harder it is to resolve and the fewer the allies willing to get involved. For the rest of the world, the war in the Sahel elicits little more than a collective shrug.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.