Paris (CNSNews.com) – France will seriously consider withdrawing its troops from Mali if the recent coup in the African country brings to power leaders who are more open to radical Islam, French President Emmanuel Macron has warned.
France has 5,100 troops in the Sahel region, helping local soldiers in their battle against radical Islamists. One thousand of those troops are based in Mali, where military officers on May 24 overthrew a junta that itself took power less than a year ago.
During a visit to Africa, Macron voiced concern that the new leaders may be less willing to tackle Islamism than their predecessors.
“If it goes in this direction, I will withdraw our troops,” he said. “I would not stay with a country where there is no longer democratic legitimacy or transition.”
“We come to the aid and support of a sovereign state so that it is not destabilized or invaded by rebel and armed groups,” Macron said. “But we are asking for transition and political inclusiveness.”
The newly-installed leadership has pledged to hold new elections by 2022. France has been saying elections are a priority since the August 2020 coup, and Macron reiterated that now.
Under its Operation Barkhane, France has been supporting Mali since 2012.
In an interview with the Le Monde daily, political scientist Mathias Hounkpe said that civil society in Mali has been disappointed in the changes that have taken place since last August, and that even religious leaders, who are very influential in Mali, have “expressed apprehension about the transition.”
The day after the recent coup, France threatened targeted sanctions against the military if the transition plan already in place did not continue.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), European Union and United States also threatened sanctions, and the U.S. has suspended military aid to Mali.
French minister of foreign affairs Jean-Yves Le Drians said during an online meeting with ECOWAS counterparts that the main priority for France would be the holding of free elections in February 2022.
French media commentators said the instability in Mali and Macron’s pullout threat provided an opportunity for Paris to start withdrawing troops from all of the Sahel countries. French public support for Operation Barkhane has been waning.
Opposition is also evident in Mali. Last Thursday demonstrators in the capital, Bamako, demanded France's departure from Mali and called on Russia to intervene.
Pro-Russian protests are nothing new in Mali. When former President Ibrahim Keïta was overthrown last August, there were rumors that the military had a powerful outside sponsor; many of the coup leaders were trained in Russia.
Hounkpe pointed to the different reactions of France to the coup in Mali last August and the recent transition in Chad, where the death of longtime President Idriss Deby in April was followed by the instalation of a transitional military council led by his son, Mahamat Idriss Deby.
France made clear its opposition to the Mali coup, but supported the transition in Chad.
“Even if I do not see a cause and effect relationship between these two events, the Malian soldiers and their supporters can use it as a pretext to discredit the French position, by instilling the idea that Paris is playing a double game and reacting accordingly of his interests,” said Hounkpe.
French soldiers are deployed in five Sahel countries – Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. The operation aims to help local forces fight radical Islamists who have been very active and threatening to destabilize the entire region.
The French-led operation is headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. France in recent years has sought to bring some European countries onboard to help in the campaign.
Spain, Britain, and Estonia support the operation with resources and intelligence. A Danish detachment reinforced Barkhane throughout 2020.
Last March a handful of European countries agreed to join a task force to advise and support Malian conventional combat units, falling under the command of Barkhane.