The Sahel, political and military failure for Emmanuel Macron

By Christophe Chatelot

Posted today at 2:29 a.m., updated at 7:28 a.m.

French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to French troops from Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, northern Mali, on May 19, 2021.

Five days only after his inauguration, it was to the sound of the bugle that Emmanuel Macron took his first steps as president in Africa on the French military base in Gao, Mali, erected in the heart of the vastness of the Sahel, 5,000 kilometers from Paris. On May 19, 2017, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta – alias “IBK”, then 72 years old – is there in his big white boubou, planted on the overheated tarmac, at the foot of the blue-white-red plane which has just brought the distant heir of the former colonizer.

Emmanuel Macron is the first French head of state born after the independence of the former colonies of Africa. He wants “reprogram the software” of French policy with regard to the continent, to change approach and reverse outlook. For his maiden voyage outside Europe, he is wearing his brand new costume as Supreme Commander of the Armies. But he was undoubtedly dreaming of another cliché – and not just a photographic one – than the old-fashioned and sepia-colored one of Françafrique, this system mixing cronyism and “coquinage” inherited, precisely, from the colonial era.

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Apart from six months spent in Nigeria as an enarque intern at the French Embassy, ​​Emmanuel Macron has no direct experience with Africa. But he has certainties. One above all: to succeed in the transformation of French policy in this region of the world, it must tackle memory issues head-on in order to try to close the still gaping scars – Rwanda, Algeria, colonization… – and create a new dynamic by relying on actors other than the tenants, sometimes entrenched, of the presidential palaces. But, until the end of his mandate, the test of the reality of the Sahelian terrain will impose itself on him, throwing a sandy veil over his balance sheet while the French army carries out a hasty withdrawal from Mali.

The weight of the warrior heritage

When he arrived at the Elysée in 2017, the security situation had already deteriorated sharply. Gao then housed the main military base of “Barkhane”, the largest French external operation (opex) since the end of the Algerian war, with some 5,000 men responsible for combating “armed terrorist groups”, the famous ” GAT” in the lexicon of the military, on a vast territory like Europe. “Barkhane” succeeded “Serval”, the intervention launched on January 11, 2013 by François Hollande in response to the call of the Malian president at the time, threatened by the offensive of a coalition led from the north of the country by jihadist groups allied with Tuareg separatists.

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