France left to muse upon failed intervention in Mali

Threat from jihadists remains as potent as ever as poor relations with ruling junta prompts French withdrawal

The last French soldiers left Mali at the beginning of this week, nearly a decade after then president François Hollande dispatched the army on an emergency mission to prevent an Islamist takeover of the capital, Bamako.

Relations between Paris and its former colony sank to a new low on Wednesday, when Mali addressed a letter to the UN Security Council accusing France of violating its airspace and arming the jihadists it has been fighting.

The French handed over what was their largest base in Africa, at Gao, to Malian armed forces and departed in an overland convoy across the border to Niger. The French ministry of defence said they took 4,000 containers and about 1,000 vehicles, hundreds of them armoured.

France had begun to draw down troops late last year, because of venomous relations with the junta led by Col Assimi Goita, and his growing alliance with Russia. President Vladimir Putin offered assistance to Goita in a phone call on April 10th.


Malian armed forces, formerly trained and armed by France, are now assisted in their fight against jihadists by about 1,000 mercenaries from Wagner, an infamous group that is backed by the Kremlin. Wagner has has moved into several bases vacated by the French.

Last spring, the junta and its Russian allies accused France of massacring more than 200 civilians at Moura, central Mali. France released a video taken by a drone showing Russian mercenaries burying bodies. An investigation by the New York Times concluded that Malian soldiers executed the men with Russian help.

By design or coincidence, the French completed their withdrawal on August 15th, the first anniversary of the US rout from Kabul.

Some detected a certain smugness in the French defence ministry’s statement that: “This major military logistical challenge was met in orderly and secure fashion, as well as in total transparency and in co-ordination with all partners”.

But if France sought to inspire comparisons, the stratagem backfired. Commentators emphasised the blood and treasure sacrificed by the US and France in futile attempts to end Islamist rebellions.

“We lost 59 soldiers and spent a billion euro a year, only to leave behind a black hole whence the same perils of terrorism and immigration threaten us more than ever,” said Le Figaro’s editorial.

Local jihadists professing loyalty to al Qaeda and Islamic State continue to proliferate in Mali. Jihadists killed 42 Malian soldiers near Gao on August 7th and 15 Burkinabe soldiers across the border in Burkina Faso a few days later.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso so far this year, Agence France Presse reported.

“The jihadists have made huge advances,” said Antoine Glaser, an expert on the French presence in Africa. “Part of it [Mali] is no longer controlled by the central government . . . The situation has deteriorated in recent months.”

When French troops arrived in Mali in January 2013, the jihadists were fighting along the northern border with Algeria only. They are now present throughout the country, and their expansion is seen as a long-term threat to the stability of France’s closest African allies, Senegal and Ivory Coast.

“During these years, our soldiers have preserved the unity of Mali, prevented the constitution of a territorial califate and fought against the terrorist groups who strike local populations and threaten Europe,” Macron said on Monday.

The French presence may have deprived the jihadists of territorial sanctuary, but it did not stop them staging daring attacks from motorcycles or laying improvised explosive devices along highways.

The UN force Minusma still maintains more than 15,000 soldiers in Mali. The mission of 14 Irish soldiers serving with a German task force will end next month. Ireland will also reduce its participation in the EU Training Mission in Mali from 20 to 14 soldiers.

France intends to reduce its Operation Barkhane from more than 5,000 to 2,500 men, who will be based in Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. Elsewhere in Africa, France maintains military bases in Djibouti, Gabon and Ivory Coast, and a permanent naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea.

The failed mission in Mali adds new urgency to French attempts to shrug off the Gaullist, post-colonial defence of French interests known as Françafrique.

“In 60 years, France has intervened militarily at least 40 times in Africa,” said Anthony Bellanger, who comments on international affairs for France-Inter radio.

Bellanger blamed Paris for antagonising Bamako by romanticising Touareg separatists, “les hommes bleus du désert”, in northern Mali, and for Paris’s double standards.

“You cannot demand an exemplary democratic process in Mali while supporting a dynastic succession in Chad,” Bellanger said, alluding to French support for Mahamat Déby, who succeeded his father Idriss, a French ally of two decades, after Idriss’s death.

“Paris must purge itself of its past, and of colonial practices if it wants to have a future in Africa.”