In Mali, “France pays the price for its own ambiguity,” says the expert

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France has increased pressure on Mali’s military junta since the West African regional group ECOWAS imposed heavy sanctions on the country over the weekend. With the Malian junta calling for protests against sanctions and international pressure on Friday, especially from Paris, the stage is ready for increased tension between the two countries. Jowhardiscussed the consequences with Antoine Glaser, a leading French expert on Africa.

Anti-French sentiment has been high in Mali in recent months, peaking this week after the main West African regional bloc announced heavy sanctions against the country on 9 January.

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

The sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were in response to the junta’s delayed electoral plan, and were immediately supported by France. The restrictions, which include trade embargoes and border closures, have prompted Air France to halt its flights to Mali this week.

France has since pressured the EU to fall in line with ECOWAS sanctions, and on Thursday UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the military junta to establish an “acceptable electoral timeline”.

Mali’s diplomatic fall from grace was triggered by the May 25, 2021 coup – the second in as many years – in which junta leader Colonel Assimi Goïta sought to strengthen military control despite international calls for a return to civilian rule.

Relations between Mali and France have collapsed since the coup, and French President Emmanuel Macron has canceled a December trip to the West African nation. 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 to counter-terrorism missions following a French troop downsizing.

Nearly a decade after France’s military intervention in Mali to halt a jihadist increase in the Sahel, the security situation in Mali has deteriorated. The blame game between Paris and Bamako has not done much to stem the tide of anti-French sentiment sweeping across the West African nation. Social media has exploded with Françafrique accusations, citing the historically opaque ties between France and its former African colonies.

Jowhardiscussed the effects and consequences of this latest chapter in French-Malian relations with Antoine Glaser, a leading French expert on Africa and author of several books, including his latest, “Le Piège africain de Macron” [Macron’s African Trap], which he co-wrote with Pascal Airault.

FRANCE 24: Why has the West African social media space erupted with anti-French messages? Is anti-French resentment increasing in Mali?

Antoine Glaser: In Africa, France exists as a kind of historical anachronism. At the same time as the continent is becoming more global, the French military presence gives the impression to a large part of the population that Paris still wants to pull the strings in the old françafrique style. And this is less and less accepted by Malian youth and more generally by all African youth.

That is why Macron organized the New Africa-France summit in Montpellier [in October 2021]. By only inviting members of civil society and excluding heads of state, he hoped to soothe this civic discontent by turning the image of Françafrique upside down.

>> Read more: Macron tries to rejuvenate relations with Africa at the summit

Obviously, in the context of the ECOWAS sanctions, the manipulation of this anti-French sentiment by the Bamako authorities, which exacerbates nationalism and makes France the ideal culprit, must not be overlooked. Not to mention the manipulation from Russia, which wants to make its mark on the continent.

Q24: Relations between France and Mali have already been tense 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 Foreign Ministry is that it no longer wants to be at the forefront of internal African affairs and that its only mission is the fight against jihadism.

The interrupted meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Assimi Goïta in December illustrates this strategy. The French leader refused to come alone and asked to accompany his African counterparts [Chad’s Mahamat Deby and Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo] He wanted to show that he was not in the front line and protect himself behind ECOWAS. This was one of the main reasons why the meeting was canceled.

But 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 are the basis of its authority on the international stage. Without Africa, France is weakened. It is thus caught in this balancing act between African and international interests.

And France’s takeover of the EU rotating presidency 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 through the Takuba force. [a task force composed mainly of special forces units from several EU nations].

Q24: With the ECOWAS sanctions, is there a risk of escalating tensions?

AG: In this political-military-diplomatic imbroglio, the situation will objectively be very difficult for Quai d’Orsay [French Foreign Ministry]. We have already seen this [on Thursday] when Mali condemned France for flying an A400M military plane into the country from the Ivory Coast. Bamako claimed that it violated Malian’s airspace and violated the no-fly zone under the sanctions. France claimed that military flights were not affected by the measures, but the episode sounds like a warning.

In addition, one wonders how the Barkhane operation [France’s counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region that Macron has started to reduce from its initial 5,000-strong force] will be able to continue. Firstly because it has no other choice, in this huge territory, than to take the help of air means, but also because the deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group raises many operational questions.

Q24: Should not France in this context hasten its withdrawal of troops from the country?

AG: France will not take this decision in the next three months before the presidential election, when the security situation in the country has deteriorated further. It wants to avoid an Afghanistan-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 also supports the sanctions only half-heartedly. Everyone has their own agenda here.

Q24: Can ECOWAS sanctions further damage France’s image in other countries in the region?

AG: Obviously there is a risk of a boomerang effect. Anti-French sentiment is already present in all the former colonies and is particularly strong in the Sahel. It was clear when a French military convoy on its way from the Ivory Coast to Mali was stopped in November [in Burkina Faso] of angry protesters.

The ECOWAS sanctions will also have very negative consequences for Mali’s neighbors. Senegal, for example, relies heavily on its trade relations with Bamako. Much of its trade is now at a standstill. Of course, Senegalese critics will be able to use this in an ideological discourse and consequently take part in further degrading France’s image.

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