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The failure of French Sahel policy: an opportunity for European cooperation?

spotlight 13, 05.09.2022

After nearly a decade of military intervention, France has withdrawn its soldiers from Mali. The departure not only symbolises a failure of French intervention policy, argue Benedikt Erforth (IDOS) and Denis Tull (SWP) in this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, but also reflects Europe’s foreign policy weakness. Yet, a more muted French footprint could also be an opportunity to build a more balanced and credible approach towards the Sahel.

Former French president François Hollande announced a partial victory over jihadist groups in January 2013 when stating: “France has no vocation to stay in Mali”. France had begun its military intervention four days earlier. Nearly a decade later, another French president used those very words to announce the end of the French troop presence. On August 15, the last soldiers of Operation Barkhane left the Malian territory.

Between 2013 and 2021, the mood in Mali and the Sahel toward France took a sharp turn. Initially hailed as a liberator, Paris now faces accusations of failing to get a grip on the security situation and even perpetuating neo-colonial patterns of dependency. In January 2022, the dispute with the Malian military government led to the expulsion of the French ambassador, followed by the termination of bilateral military cooperation. Paris pre-empted the expulsion of Barkhane by deciding to withdraw itself. But even after that, there is no end in sight to the tensions. Recently, the Malian government accused France of supporting terrorist elements in the country.

It is already clear that with France’s withdrawal, a part of European foreign policy has also failed. This is evidenced, among other things, by the presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries and a wave of populist, sometimes strident anti-Western discourse. As a result, President Emmanuel Macron must now work towards damage limitation in his second term. With all this in mind, what are the consequences for German and European policymaking in the Sahel?

When Path Dependencies Prevent Strategic Adaptation

Since the mid-1990s, France’s foreign and security policy toward francophone African countries has oscillated between historical continuity and a drive for change. Hollande, too, had taken office as a moderniser. At the same time, his worldview was shaped by the experiences of the Global War on Terror after September 11, France’s linguistic, historical, geographic and sociocultural proximity to its former colonies, and the cross-party understanding of France’s special role and responsibility in the world, for which Africa often serves as a projection screen.

When an amalgam of separatists from the northern provinces, self-declared jihadists and al-Qaeda supporters set course for Mali’s capital Bamako in January 2013, Mali’s then interim president Dioncounda Traoré asked France for support. However, attempts to launch an African peacekeeping force failed. Hollande, who had ruled out military intervention until the very end, finally gave the order to intervene. Less than a month later, 4,500 combat troops were in Mali, quickly pushing back the jihadists. In 2014, the intervention eventually transformed into a regional and open-ended military initiative called Operation Barkhane.

From the beginning, Paris pursued a policy of internationalising the intervention, claiming international collaboration and French leadership at the same time. This served both to share the burden and to legitimise French intervention, which was visible in the mobilisation of the UN (MINUSMA), the EU (EUTM, EUCAP Sahel), and numerous bilateral European partners, including Germany.

Failed Intervention

The results of the decade-long intervention are now well known. For France, Mali became a foreign policy fiasco. The political goal remained vague until the end, reinforcing the impression of a military bias without strategic purpose. Paris turned late and hesitantly to a more balanced approach. For example, development cooperation played only a minor role in the French policy to stabilising the region. Aid flows were mainly seen as an instrument in support of counterinsurgency measures and as providing legitimacy to the French military operation. Although Paris declared the Sahel a foreign policy priority, in 2018 the five Sahel states accounted for only 10 percent of total French development assistance to Africa, with Mali receiving only 2.5 percent. The fact that this level has remained unchanged since 2013 shows the discrepancy between declared political priorities and the actual allocation of funds.

Other political incoherencies further damaged the credibility of French Sahel policy in the region. A prominent example is the support for the unconstitutional takeover of power in Chad by Mahamat Déby (2021). In marked contrast, Paris went on a course of political confrontation with the military government in Bamako. The many prevailing contradictions in Europe’s approach to the crises became apparent, when the EU enforced sanctions against Mali, while France saw no problem in continuing the joint fight against terrorism with the same government.

Joint European Failures

France’s undisputed role as the leader and driving force of the international coalition in the Sahel should not, however, ignore collective European responsibility. European Union member states followed a more or less coordinated and rather linear course for almost ten years, which remained largely unchanged despite the widely apparent lack of success. European partners have neither properly challenged French leadership and its political guidance, nor have they succeeded in correcting the course once taken. There were diverging views on a number of issues, and in private conversations officials from European countries have not hesitated to express frustrations about the French course of action.

An example of such European obedience is the G5 Sahel Joint Force. As of 2018, it was proclaimed a lighthouse project by Paris, and was attributed crucial importance in solving the crisis in Mali. As a result, Germany and other countries devoted considerable political attention and financial support to it. However, the G5 was never able to fulfil its own unrealistic targets and expectations. Another example concerns possible political dialogue between Bamako and the jihadists. Berlin aligned itself with the French position, which declared such an endeavour taboo, despite broader support for such an undertaking in Mali itself. Yet another example is the aforementioned discrepant dealings with the governments in Mali and Chad. Despite audible grumblings, European partners were unwilling or unable to impose political consistency.

A Push Towards a More Collective Europe in Africa

Despite its peculiarities, the breakdown of the Malian-French relationship is symptomatic of a crisis of French Africa policy. Paris is crystallising deep-seated resentments in its former colonies that are increasingly coming to the fore. The resultant dilemma for Germany is that its closest partner has increasingly become more of a liability in its relationship with West Africa. Today, standing by France’s side can incur reputation risks in the region.

Berlin distancing itself from Paris would undermine the importance of Franco-German relations, especially since Africa, while not unimportant, is not the foremost issue for the alliance.

The German impulse to rely even more heavily on the EU track may offer a way out here under certain conditions. Throughout Mali and the region, the prevailing public perception is that France defines the EU’s positioning on Africa. This is not an entirely mistaken view. Local observers correctly assume that France has much greater ambitions in the region than any other European country – and thus greater incentives to shape and influence EU policy.

If the EU is to play a stronger and more credible role in Africa, the design and implementation of its policies must change. Both in terms of substance and communications, the EU and its member states must challenge the reputation of being merely France’s support act. Member states that have hitherto played a less prominent role in the region, despite their financial and military capacities, should become more vocal in defining the EU’s approach toward the Sahel region. This, of course, presupposes that they are willing to shape policy and develop a level of strategic interest in the region to negotiate with Paris the course of European action to be taken. The Team Europe approach in development cooperation may be able to set an example here. Together with partner countries and regional organisations, small groups of EU member states can set and coordinate development policy priorities.

Franco-German frictions over Mali in recent years are at least a positive indication that diverging views are now being discussed more often in relation to EU policy in Africa. Whether France will shed its habitus as Europe’s natural leader in Africa is by no means certain. However, recent events in Mali has considerably shaken old French certainties about its position in the world’s second largest continent. This could be an opportunity for Germany and other European countries to play a greater role than before in shaping European policy toward the Sahel and francophone West Africa.