French forces face military trap in Sahel region

French President Emmanuel Macron (3-R) flanked by Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (2-L), Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore (R), Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou (2-R), Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani (L) and Chad's President Idriss Deby (3-R) speaks during a press conference as part of the G5 Sahel summit on the situation in the Sahel region at the Chateau de Pau in Pau, France, 13 January 2020. EPA-EFE/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO / POOL

Operation Barkhane was supposed to be France’s contribution to ridding jihadists from the Sahel region, one of its main spheres of influence in Africa. But instead, President Emmanuel Macron is increasingly isolated – both in Africa and in Europe.

Macron secured some cosmetic commitments at the six-way summit with the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – and European Council chief Charles Michel in the southern French town of Pau, on Monday (13 January).

The G5 leaders “expressed the wish for the continuation of France’s military engagement in the Sahel” following Macron’s demands that they offer public support for France’s military presence.

Military forces will be placed under one umbrella and efforts focused on tackling the Islamic State terrorist group. France will send an additional 220 troops to supplement the 4,500 already in the region, said Macron.

But there is little sign that other EU countries are likely to share the burden any time soon.

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The prospect of a pan-European force, known as Operation Takouba, joining the Barkhane forces remains a work in progress. Only a handful of countries are likely to be involved – Denmark has made the most significant commitment in terms of troops thus far – and the two major European countries, the United Kingdom and Germany, have other foreign policy preoccupations.

Macron has also been frustrated by the reluctance of his European allies to share the financing and military burden of Operation Barkhane. In 2019, only $300 million out of the $400 million pledged by the international donors was actually paid out, according to the French presidency.

Despite having killed more than 600 jihadist militants since being launched in 2014 as the successor to Operation Serval, the 4,500 Barkhane troops deployed across the region from Mali to Chad have been unable to deliver peace.

Instead, jihadist attacks in the Sahel have intensified in recent months – the latest militia attack on a Nigerien army base last week killed 89 people, and last year saw the highest annual death toll since 2012 – and the presence of French soldiers in the region is increasingly unpopular locally.

Death of 13 soldiers in Mali highlights France's isolation in Sahel region

In a fairly direct message to Germany, the EU Commission’s outgoing President, Jean-Claude Juncker, noted that the French army is alone when defending Europe’s honour and security in Mali. EURACTIV France reports.

There is mounting frustration on all sides. Macron has been angered by what he has described as “a lack of clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings” among local people in the Sahel.

Privately, French military commanders fear that they are locked into an intractable conflict that is unpopular in the Sahel and at home, though French Defence Chief of Staff François Lecointre has ruled out the prospect of ending Opération Barkhane.

African leaders want a “respectable and respectful relationship” with France, says Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Meanwhile, the Sahel Alliance, launched in July 2017 as a development programme to complement the Barkhane military mission, and focus on providing employment for young people, rural development, food security, energy and climate, governance, and access to basic services, has been slow to receive finance and projects.

Getting serious in the Sahel

Combating Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region has united Europe and the wider international community. Most attention has been focused on the G5 Sahel joint military operation which has been tasked with combating jihadist groups in the region.

The notion that Operation Barkhane is a French attempt to “recolonise” the Sahel has gained currency, and Macron’s high-handed approach has created the impression that France wants to run the show.

For their part, at a meeting in mid-December, the G5 leaders called for the force to be brought under the auspices of the UN and become a regional peace-enforcing, rather than peace-keeping and training force.

In December, West Africa’s CFA monetary union, which includes three of the G5 Sahel countries agreed to rename its CFA franc, a legacy of French colonialism, as the Eco. The new currency will be launched this year, initially continuing the CFA’s fixed exchange rate to the euro, guaranteed by France. However, member countries will no longer be required to deposit half their foreign exchange reserves with the Banque de France.

Meanwhile, the United States is edging towards reducing its military presence in the region.

Earlier on Monday, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US’ military presence in Africa  “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental US or shifted to” the Pacific.

“If the Americans decided to leave Africa, this would be very bad news for us,” conceded Macron in Pau.

The next scheduled set-piece will be a summit in Nouakchott in June 2020 as part of Mauritania’s presidency of the G5 Sahel.

EU relies on stability in the Sahel for its own security

“Europe’s security, and that of Spain, depend on security in the Sahel,” said the EU Special Representative for the Sahel, Ángel Losada. EURACTIV’s partner Euroefe reports.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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