France will cut back its military operations in the Sahel to focus more narrowly on the fight against Islamist terror, but will continue to co-operate with the armies of its African and international allies along the southern fringes of the Sahara, Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said on Thursday.
Paris has maintained a large force in the region, currently more than 5,000-strong, since Macron’s predecessor François Hollande sent troops to Mali to stop the country falling into the hands of jihadis eight years ago.
As with the US, which is withdrawing forces after fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis in Afghanistan since 2001, Macron made clear that France was dissatisfied with the failure of the Sahel’s governments to administer effectively territory briefly reclaimed from jihadis by military operations.
“It’s not France’s role to substitute itself for ever for the states of the region,” Macron told a news conference in Paris before the G7 summit in the UK this weekend. “The time has come.”
He gave no troop numbers or timeframe for the drawdown of French forces, but said Operation Barkhane would end in its current form and be replaced by a “new framework” with two pillars: a continuing campaign led by French and allied special forces against Islamist terrorists and co-operation with national armies in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea.
In February, Macron delayed a previously planned reduction of forces in the region, but warned that he wanted to do so eventually to avoid “infinite war”.
France’s presence in the region has grown increasingly unpopular as its operations have worn on, sparking anti-French protests in some cities. Many politicians and ordinary citizens remain suspicious of their former colonial power, which maintains strong cultural, economic, diplomatic and political influence in Africa.
French forces have killed several Islamist leaders in recent years and many observers argue that their presence is essential to preserve the little stability that remains in the region. But violence, including massacres of civilians by Islamist extremists, has steadily spread from northern to central Mali and across the borders into Niger and Burkina Faso.
Extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Isis have taken advantage of long-running communal tensions and filled the void of largely absent governments across the region to capture vast swaths of territory.
France has been criticised by both Sahelians and European diplomats in the region for offering lip service to improving governance while remaining focused largely on the security response — despite widespread acknowledgment that there is no military solution to problems in the Sahel.
Macron again rejected the idea of negotiating with Islamists who were killing French soldiers and citizens, although locals weary of violence often favour such talks.
Despite Macron’s warnings, authorities in both Mali and Burkina Faso have already engaged in negotiations and brokered some temporary ceasefires in a region where a man might be a smuggler, a bandit, an ethnic militia member or a jihadi, depending on the day and the situation.
Additional reporting by David Keohane in Paris