Macron Heads to West Africa to Visit French Troops Fighting Jihadist Insurgents

By Fayçal Benhassain | May 18, 2017 | 10:52 PM EDT

French troops deployed as part of Operation Barkhane. (Photo: French Ministry of Defense)

Paris ( – New French President Emmanuel Macron has chosen as his first destination outside of Europe Mali, a former colony where French troops have been fighting Islamist insurgents for four years.

Almost a week after taking office, Macron heads to a country where 1,000 French troops form part of a joint mission with U.N. and Malian forces. Despite a ceasefire signed in 2015 between insurgents and the Malian government, the joint forces are still targets of jihadist attacks and the situation in the north of the country remains precarious.

“There still are huge challenges in the Sahel region and I want to accelerate cooperation of the G5 countries of the region to fight jihadism and terrorism,” Macron said in a speech on the day he took office, referring to Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Mali.

While campaigning for the presidency, the centrist candidate indicated a desire to visit the troops serving in Mali. They are part of a broader mission, Operation Barkhane, comprising some 4,000 French soldiers in the G5 countries.

Nineteen French personnel have been killed in the mission since 2013, most recently including a soldier in eastern Mali in early April.

Jihadists continue to control and carry out attacks in parts of Mali, an unstable situation Macron inherited from his Socialist predecessor. Former President François Hollande’s last trip to Africa, in January, was to attend a security summit in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

During his campaign, Macron told an African magazine, “I realize that France is not the only country affected by terrorism. Africa is struggling more and more with terrorism. We saw it in Bamako, Mali, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and in Grand Bassam in Ivory Coast.”

Last year, jihadists carried out deadly attacks on hotels in all three countries, with foreign tourists among the victims.

The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France over the past three years have had African links, according to French intelligence agencies.

Many of the jihadists fighting against French troops in the region belong to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Salafist group Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”). They tend to operate in areas of Mali and elsewhere where no legitimate form of government prevails.

Ahead of Macron’s visit, a report in the Malian newspaper L’Indicateur du Renouveau stated that  “More and more voices are rising to criticize the action of the Barkhane force. It is an operation that many consider ineffective in the fight against terrorism. [Under the noses of] the French forces, terrorist groups thrive, attack and kill daily Malian and U.N. troops.”

Macron has given no indication of any plans to withdraw the troops soon. 

If anything, his actions have signaled otherwise. On the day he took office he used a military command car for the traditional parade in the Champs Elysées, before visiting a military hospital outside Paris to meet with wounded soldiers who had been stationed in various African countries.

France retains considerable influence in its former colonies in Africa. While independent they retain strong economic, military and language ties with France. Between 1830 and 1962 it colonized 19 countries in northern and western Africa, including Mali and Chad and Morocco and Tunisia in the north.