“France is paying the price for its own obscurity,” says Mali expert.

France has increased pressure on Mali’s junta since the West African regional group ECOWAS imposed tough sanctions on the country over the weekend. With Mali’s military junta calling for protests on Friday against sanctions and international pressure, especially from Paris, the stage is set for increased tension between the two countries. FRANCE 24 discussed the implications of this with Antoine Glaser, the leading French expert on Africa.

Anti-French sentiment has been rising in Mali over the past few months, reaching its peak this week after the main West African regional bloc announced tough sanctions on the country on January 9.

Mali’s junta urged people to take to the streets on Friday to “support the nation” against West African sanctions and international pressure – primarily by the country’s former colonial power, France.

The sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) came in response to the belated junta election timetable, and had France’s immediate support. The restrictions, which include a trade ban and border closures, led Air France to suspend flights to Mali this week.

France has since pressed the European Union to abide by ECOWAS sanctions, and on Thursday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Mali’s junta to set an “acceptable timetable for elections”.

The diplomatic downfall of Mali was initiated by the coup on May 25, 2021 – the second in as many years – which saw junta leader Colonel Aseme Gouta attempt to consolidate military control despite international calls for a return to civilian rule.

Relations between Mali and France have deteriorated since the coup, with French President Emmanuel Macron canceling a December trip to the West African country. While the official French reason for Macron’s cancellation was the Covid-19 pandemic, this was followed by a war of words between Paris and Bamako over Mali’s decision to invite mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group on anti-terror missions after the withdrawal of French forces.

After nearly a decade of French military intervention in Mali to stem the rise of jihadists in the Sahel region, the security situation in Mali has deteriorated. The blame game between Paris and Bamako has done little to quell the wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping the West African country. Social media has exploded with Frankfried Allegations refer to the ambiguous historical relations between France and its former African colonies.

FRANCE 24 discussed the impact and repercussions of this latest chapter on French-financial relations with Antoine Glaser, a prominent French expert on Africa and author of several books, including his latest book “Le Piège africain de Macron”. [Macron’s African Trap]co-authored with Pascal Ayrault.

France 24: Why the social media space in West Africa broke out with anti-French messages? Is resentment of the French rising in Mali?

Antoine Glaser: In Africa, France exists as a kind of anachronism. As the continent becomes global, the French military presence gives the impression to a large section of the population that Paris still wants to pull the strings in the old Frankfried pattern. This is less accepted by Malian youth, and in general by all African youth.

This was the reason why Macron organized the French New Africa Summit in Montpellier [in October 2021]. By inviting only members of civil society and excluding heads of state, he hoped to defuse this citizen’s discontent by upending the image of Frankfried on his head.

>> Read more: Macron seeks renewed ties with Africa at summit

Obviously, in the context of ECOWAS sanctions, one must not ignore the manipulation of these anti-French sentiments by the authorities in Bamako, which exacerbate nationalism and make France the ideal culprit. Not to mention the manipulation of Russia, which wants to leave its mark on the continent.

F24: Relations between France and Mali were already tense for several months. What is Macron’s strategy with Bamako?

AG: In my opinion, France is paying the price for its obscurity in Mali. The official position of the French Foreign Ministry is that it no longer wants to be at the forefront of internal African affairs and that its sole mission is to fight the jihadists.

The aborted meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Asmie Guetta in December illustrates this strategy. The French president refused to come alone and asked to be accompanied by his African counterparts [Chad’s Mahamat Deby and Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo] He wanted to show that he was not on the front line and to protect himself behind the Economic Community of West African States. This was one of the main reasons for canceling the meeting.

However, when it comes to Mali, due to its diplomatic influence, France is always at the forefront of all discussions. The reason is simple: its military strength and presence in Africa are the basis of its power in the international arena. Without Africa, France weakens. It is thus caught in this balance between African and international interests.

France’s assumption of the European Union’s rotating presidency reinforces this phenomenon. For months, Emmanuel Macron has tried to involve as many European countries as possible in the fight against terrorism in Africa through the Takuba force. [a task force composed mainly of special forces units from several EU nations].

F24: With ECOWAS sanctions, is there a risk of escalating tensions?

AG: In this political-military-diplomatic stalemate, the situation will objectively become very difficult for the Quai d’Orsay [French Foreign Ministry]. We’ve already seen this [on Thursday] When Mali condemned France for flying an A400M military aircraft into the country from Ivory Coast. Bamako claimed it had violated Mali’s airspace and violated the sanctioned overflights. France has argued that military flights were not affected by the measures, but the incident appears to be a warning.

Furthermore, one wonders how the Barkhane process takes place [France’s counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region that Macron has started to reduce from its initial 5,000-strong force] You will be able to continue. First of all, because it has no other option, in this vast territory, than to resort to air means, but also because the deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group raises many operational questions.

F24: In this context, shouldn’t France expedite the withdrawal of its forces from the country?

AG: France will not make this decision in the next three months before the presidential elections, when the security situation in the country will further deteriorate. It wants to avoid an Afghanistan-style catastrophe at all costs.

It is important to understand that each country serves its own interests in this matter. Some members of the Economic Community of West African States fear coups in their country. Algeria also lukewarmly supports sanctions. Everyone has their own agenda here.

F24: Could ECOWAS sanctions further damage France’s image in other countries in the region?

AG: There is clearly a risk of a rebound effect. Anti-French sentiment is already present in all former colonies and is particularly strong in the Sahel. This was abundantly clear when a French military convoy en route from Ivory Coast to Mali was stopped in November. [in Burkina Faso] by angry protesters.

The ECOWAS sanctions will have very negative consequences for Mali’s neighbours. Senegal, for example, relies heavily on its trade relations with Bamako. An entire portion of its trade is now at a standstill. Of course, Senegalese critics will be able to use this in an ideological discourse, thus participating in the further deterioration of France’s image.

(This is a translation of the original in French).

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