In Mali, "France pays the price for its ambiguity"

Since the implementation of sanctions by ECOWAS, France has not eased the pressure on the Malian junta. A new stage in the tensions between the two countries already high for several months.

While the climate was already deleterious between Paris and Bamako for several months, the tension rose again a notch between the two countries. In question, the implementation of the sanctions decided on January 9 by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and supported by France: the closing of the borders with Mali and a commercial and financial embargo.

The leaders of the West African organization have opted for the hard way after the junta announced the postponement of the presidential and legislative elections, however promised on February 27. A way for Colonel Assimi Goïta, who came to power by a coup d’état on May 25, 2021, to signify that he intended to retain power for several years.

Since then, Paris has not released the pressure. On Wednesday January 12, she went further announcing that the Air France company was suspending its links with the country until further notice. While France holds the rotating six-monthly presidency of the European Union, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian assured that the 27 were also preparing a series of measures.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday demanded from the Malian government “an acceptable electoral calendar” while indicating that he hoped “to get in touch quickly with the Malian government”.

At the same time, in Bamako, the junta calls on the Malians to take to the streets on Friday, orchestrating around the defense of the motherland the multiple protests against West African sanctions and international pressure, and first of all, from France.

Antoine Glaser, co-author of the book “The African Trap of Macron”, published by Fayard, returns for France 24 on the deterioration of relations between two countries in recent months and the consequences of this new episode for France in Mali and the Sahel .

France 24: Since the announcement of the ECOWAS sanctions against Mali, many messages have been published on social networks openly criticizing France. Is there indeed a strong anti-French resentment in the country ?

Antoine Glaser : In Africa, France lives in a kind of historical anachronism. While the continent is globalizing, the French military presence gives the impression, to a whole part of the population, that Paris still wants to pull the strings of an ‘old-fashioned Françafrique’. And this is less and less well accepted by Malian youth, and more generally by all African youth.

Moreover, that was the raison d’être of the summit organized in Montpellier by Emmanuel Macron. By inviting only members of civil society and dismissing heads of state, he hoped to defuse this citizen discontent by taking back the image of this Françafrique.

Obviously, in the context of the ECOWAS sanctions, we must not neglect the instrumentalization of this anti-French feeling by the authorities in Bamako who exacerbate nationalism and make France the ideal culprit. Without forgetting the instrumentalization of Russia which wants to make its place on the continent.

Relations between France and Mali had already been strained for several months. What is Emmanuel Macron’s strategy with Bamako ?

In my opinion, in Mali, France is paying the price for its own ambiguity. The official position of the Quai d’Orsay is to say that it no longer wants to be on the front line of African internal affairs and that its only mission is the fight against jihadism.

The abortive meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Assimi Goïta in December is a good illustration of this strategy. The head of state refused to come alone and he asked to be accompanied by African supporters. He wanted to show that he was not on the front line and protect himself behind the ECOWAS. This is largely why the meeting was canceled.

>> To read also: Insecurity, Wagner, transition … the many subjects of friction between France and Mali

However, when we talk about Mali, because of its influential diplomacy, France always finds itself at the head of all discussions. The reason is simple: its military power and its presence in Africa are the foundations of its authority on the international scene. Without Africa, France is weakened. It thus finds itself trapped in this balancing act between African interests and international interests.

And France’s assumption of office as President of the European Union further reinforces this phenomenon. Especially since, for months, Emmanuel Macron has been trying to involve as many European countries as possible in the fight against terrorism in Africa via the Takuba force. [force opérationnelle composée principalement d’unités des forces spéciales de plusieurs pays de l’Union européenne, NDLR].

With the ECOWAS sanctions, is there a risk that tensions will escalate?

In this politico-military-diplomatic imbroglio, the situation will become objectively very difficult for the Quai d’Orsay. This has already been seen today [jeudi 13 janvier, NDLR] with the return flight of an A400M aircraft from Operation Barkhane, between Côte d’Ivoire and northern Mali. Bamako stepped up to the plate ensuring that this violated the ban on overflight of its airspace, decided in reaction to the sanctions. France argued that military flights were not affected by the measures but the episode sounds good as a warning.

Moreover, one may wonder how Operation Barkhane will be able to continue. Already because it has no other choice, in this immense territory, than to have recourse to air means but also because the deployment of the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group raises many operational questions.

>> To read also: Who are the Russian militiamen of the Wagner group who are approaching the junta in Mali ?

In this context, shouldn’t France speed up the withdrawal of its troops from the country? ?

France will not make this decision three months before the presidential election when the country’s security situation has deteriorated further. She wants at all costs to avoid an Afghan debacle.

It should be understood that, in this story, each country serves its own interests. Some ECOWAS members fear a coup d’état in their own country. Algeria too, supports the sanctions that half-word. Everyone has their own agenda with which they compose.

Could the ECOWAS sanctions further degrade France’s image in other countries in the region? ?

Obviously, there is a risk that there will be a boomerang effect. Anti-French sentiment already exists in all of the former colonies and it is particularly strong in the Sahel. Proof of this, we remember this convoy of Operation Barkhane which was stormed in November while going from Côte d’Ivoire to northern Mali.

The ECOWAS sanctions will also have very negative consequences for Mali’s neighbors. Senegal, for example, relies heavily on its trade relations with Bamako. A whole part of his business is now at a standstill. Of course, Senegalese opponents will be able to use this in an ideological discourse and, consequently, participate in further degrading the image of France.

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