Macron hosts European and African leaders in preparation of Sahel redeployment

[SARAH MEYSSONNIER/EPA]

The French president invited European and African counterparts to revisit actions to combat terrorism in the Sahel, confirming that the redeployment of French troops in the region is on the horizon.

The announcement of the withdrawal of French and European armed forces from Mali after nearly 10 years fighting a jihadist insurgency, in their current configuration, is still pending, but seems inevitable.

Emmanuel Macron hosted on Wednesday evening (16 February) European and African partners involved in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel for a working dinner.

The working dinner brought together the leaders of France’s key allies in the Sahel region — Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

Officials from Mali and Burkina Faso, which also recently experienced a coup, have not been invited.

Other African leaders were present along with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

The day before, the Élysée indicated that it would be a question of “examining the possibility of continuing to act effectively and collectively in Mali” and “reviewing the model of military partnership to better reflect African public opinion”.

The status quo is “not possible in a very deteriorated context in Mali, with the seizure of power by a junta, the refusal to apply a timetable for the return to democratic order, which had been announced, and the use of a private Russian militia”, the government spokesman Gabriel Attal also said.

Without naming it, he referred to the Wagner Group, a purportedly private Russian paramilitary entity which has been promoting Russian interests in Africa in recent years. Apparently one of the undeclared goals of the Wagner group is to oust France from Mali.

Nearly 25,000 men are currently deployed in the Sahel region, of which almost 4,300 are French, including 2,400 in Mali as part of the anti-terrorist operation “Barkhane”, according to figures from the Elysée Palace.

Task Force Takuba, which brings together the special forces of several European Union countries, is reportedly also in the process of being phased out.

Following the informal dinner, a press conference will be held on Thursday morning to report on these exchanges and possibly announce a redeployment of these troops.

For everything suggests that the days of these operations, as they stand, are numbered.

If the French Presidency specified in advance of this meeting that it would be an “open conversation” and that any decision would be taken in a “collective framework”, it also mentioned that the “partners are inclined to consider that the conditions for a successful mission in Mali are no longer met”.

France, it seems, does not intend to abandon the fight against terrorism in the Sahel but rather to revisit the formats of its intervention.

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A new alliance between Africa and Europe

This dinner comes on the eve of the summit between European and African leaders, organised under the leadership of France in its capacity as president of the EU Council and supposed to lay the foundations of the new alliance between the two continents.

“The link between [Africa and Europe] is the great political and geopolitical project of the decades to come,” the French president had declared when unveiling the priorities of his term at the head of the EU, displaying his desire to launch a new economic and financial New Deal with Africa.

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Security issues were therefore, in theory, to occupy only a small part of the discussions in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron spoke at a conference led by the French Development Agency (AFD) on sustainable investment in Africa.

The Head of State reaffirmed his desire for a “new alliance” between the EU and Africa on the basis of “a partnership of equals”.

He indicated that, in the coming weeks, AFD would change its name to reflect this new departure because the expression “development aid” is no longer accepted. One of the event’s round tables was devoted to the semantics of development.

“The word development is not a problem. On the other hand, it is about perception,” Bertrand Walckenaer, AFD’s Deputy Director General, told EURACTIV.

The word development “is associated with a model in which, historically, it is about aid with a posture that some would describe as paternalistic and which no longer corresponds to what the representatives of the African continent want today,” he added.

“The idea is to change the profound software of our relationship” and to “get out of the logic structured by past representations, for better or for worse”, the Head of State summarised.

Emmanuel Macron also presented the two major challenges, according to him, on which this new alliance will have to work: sustainable infrastructure and entrepreneurship, particularly among African youth.

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(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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