French president Emmanuel Macron reinforced his commitment to fighting armed Islamists in Africa during a speech made at the French military base in Gao, northern Mali, while also calling on more support from Germany and other European countries. The trip – his first outside of Europe – sent strong signals at the start to his presidency.
While in Gao, Macron said France would be “uncompromising” in the fight against “Islamist terrorists” in Mali.
He also pledged his support to Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who met him at the military base in Gao, where an estimated 1,600 French soldiers are based. Both men called on Germany for further support.
“France de facto ensures Europe’s security, in Mali and in other theatres of operations,” said Macron. “But other countries can do more, in terms of back-up, in terms of development (and) partnerships for equipment … I want to strengthen those European partnerships, in particular with Germany.
He brought up this topic with Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel during a visit he made the day he was inaugurated. Currently Germany is the largest European supporter of the UN mission in Mali, Minusma.
Shaping a political narrative
France has been engaged in Mali since January 2013 when groups linked to Al Qaeda took over the north of the country.
Operation Barkhane is France’s biggest military engagement at present. It involves 4,000 soldiers spread across five countries – Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Chad – in the politically fragile Sahel region.
Macron’s visit to Gao fulfilled a campaign promise to visit French troops fighting armed Islamists. Originally he planned to do so on the day of his inauguration but the logistics didn’t work out, said Martin Michelot, a political expert and deputy director of thinktank Europeum. Michelot thinks Macron is keen to set a firm political tone.
“Emmanuel Macron’s main weakness is actually his [lack of] experience in foreign policy, security policy and fighting terrorism,” said Michelot. “He has to show already from the get-go that he has the resolve and the networks to carry this mission out.”
Key to building that credibility is his appointment of Socialist Jean-Yves Le Drian as his minister of Europe and foreign affairs. Le Drian was defence minister under Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, and managed the original French intervention in Mali, Operation Serval.
“Le Drian is widely known as Mr Africa within the government,” said Michelot. ” As he is now foreign minister, the vision he articulated during the past five years will be continued.”
Le Drian accompanied Macron on his visit to Mali, returning to an area he now knows well. Defence Minister Sylvie Goulard also came along.
General Vincent Desportes, a former commander at the French war college who now teaches at Sciences Po Paris, is heartened by Macron’s position. He agrees that the visit is a strong sign of support for the army.
“This visit shows that he understands that defence is one of the most important missions of the French government,” Desportes said. “He plans to increase the budget to restore the French military forces. Under Hollande, military operations were too spread out with too few resources.”
Desportes says that increased funds will help improve the security situation in Mali. Despite the military intervention, Mali remains chronically unstable and the situation has deteriorated of late.
Huge swathes of the country remain uncontrolled by UN, French and Malian forces. Deadly attacks continue.
Those who suffer the most are obviously the people on the ground. Ahead of Macron’s visit, Human Rights Watch issued a statement asking Macron to discuss these issues.
“The human rights situation in Mali has become extremely precarious as violence and insecurity has descended to central and southern Mali,” said Corinne Dufka, an associate director at Human Rights Watch who is in charge of the organisation’s work in West Africa. “We’re asking that President Macron speaks very clearly to his Malian counterpart about the importance of addressing the problems which are at the root of Mali’s years of insecurity– notably rampant corruption, weak judiciary and ongoing security force violations. These undermine people’s faith in the state and has opened the door to Islamist groups.”
Dufka maintains that a solution to Mali’s problems cannot be just military in nature.
According to his aides, Macron is listening to these pleas. He plans to boost development aid alongside the military intervention. Rémy Rioux, the director general of French Development agency, made the trip with the president.
Looking on a broader level
Is this visit an indicator of Macron’s vision towards Africa as a whole? Analyst Gilles Yabi doesn’t expect much change.
“The strategic interests of France remain the same,” Yabi, who founded the WATHI thinktank, said. “The economic interests remain the same. If relationships change, it would be because of change in African leadership.”
However, he did point out that Macron may have difficulty forging close bonds with some of his African counterparts.
“Macron is 39, which might make personal relationships difficult with many rulers in Africa – especially in central Africa, where some rulers have been there 20 or 30 years,” Yabi said.