24 May 2017

West Africa: French President Reaffirms Commitment to Fight Terrorism in Sahel

During his election campaign, France’s new president Emmanuel Macron promised he would visit French troops in Mali. Just days into his term, he made Mali his second foreign visit, and his first to Africa.

In choosing Mali as his second foreign trip, just a week into his presidency, Emmanuel Macron was sending a clear message that he is determined to continue the fight against terrorism.

France sent troops into Mali in 2013, in a military intervention that pushed the extremists from their strongholds, but hasn’t stopped the wave of killings, kidnappings and attacks there by Islamic militants.

Macron went to the French troops’ base at Gao, where he met with Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta — and reaffirmed France’s commitment to its military involvement in the Sahel region.

“France has been involved since the beginning, by your side,” he said, “and I’m here today to tell you it still is,” he said.

Operation Barkhane

France currently has 4,000 troops in the West African nations of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, as part of Operation Barkhane, France's largest military operation overseas.

Mali specialist Professor Philippe Hugon says that while it’s too soon to tell what Macron’s overall policy on Africa will be, this visit is a clear sign.

"It shows a continuity in relation to French interventions in Africa," he says.

President Macron said “France’s determination will be total in the fight for security, not just in Mali but also in the Sahel.”

But he also said other European countries needed to get involved, and he was critical of some African nations for not doing enough.

A former investment banker and economy minister, Macron has little experience in the fight against terrorism, or military matters.

Diplomatic faux pas?

In going directly to Gao, Macron fulfilled his promise to visit his troops — but may have ruffled some diplomatic feathers by not stopping in the capital Bamako first.

Professor Hugon says the visit could have been better handled.

While Macron was not on a state visit, but rather going as head of the French armed forces, Hugon says that in itself could send the wrong message.

"France, of course, played its role," he says, "but as time goes on, it could look like an occupying force, so I think it could have been handled differently, on a diplomatic level."

Operation Barkhane was launched to wipe out armed terrorist groups in the Sahel region.

But while there have been successes, it’s unclear what the current strategy of those groups is as alliances shift, and the situation in northern Mali remains a concern for the new French president — one that’s not going away anytime soon.

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