AfricaColumnsEuropeForeign PolicyFrance Insists on Mali’s Return to Civilian Rule

Avatar PilotnewsSeptember 26, 2020

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a September 22 UN General Assembly (UNGA) speech, made continued French military involvement contingent upon Mali’s restoration of civilian rule. He was blunt: “They (the junta) must put Mali on the irreversible path of returning to civilian power and organize rapid elections.” And, “France […] can only remain engaged on this condition.”

As he has in the past, Macron was also clear that France has a low tolerance level for popular demonstrations against France, or francophone West African states that might be tempted by anti-French rhetoric: “The second these states want us to leave or consider that they can fight terrorism on their own, we will withdraw.” The same day Macron was speaking at UNGA, there was a small anti-French demonstration in Bamako.

The Mali junta appears impervious to pressures from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) to restore civilian government. Pressure from France might be different. France deploys more than 5,000 well-trained, well-equipped troops against jihadist extremist groups that seek to overthrow the government and destroy the political class in Mali and in its neighboring states. The French are assisted by some EU partners, and the United States provides logistical and intelligence support. Were France to withdraw, so, too, would its EU partners, and the continued U.S. presence, small though it is, would be called into question.

The jihadist operations in the Sahel have intensified and spread. French withdrawal might well lead to their destruction of Mali and some of its neighboring states. If the Mali junta remains intransigent, would the French really withdraw? West Africa is the French equivalent of the Russian “near abroad.” For many French, close ties with francophone Africa makes their country more than simply a large state in the European Union. On the other hand, there is opposition in France to unending military engagement in the Sahel: some characterize the Sahel as France’s Afghanistan.

A possible, even likely, outcome will be that the junta will adopt more civilian trappings, such as a genuinely civilian head of state that is acceptable to the Macron government, even if it must hold its noose.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He was a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. He writes the blog Africa in Transition.  This article first appeared in CFR.

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