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Mali as Seen by France’s Presidential Candidates

Mali as Seen by France’s Presidential Candidates
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

France and Mali have long-standing bilateral relations, developed through extensive historical, cultural, and diasporic ties. In 2013, France successfully launched Operation Serval at Mali’s request in order to oust Islamic militants from the North of the country, who were preparing an offensive towards Bamako. In 2014, this was followed by Operation Barkhane, operating across Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, in an effort to fight islamist terrorism in the region, with over 5,000 troops. Beyond defense, France’s approach to the Sahel region was also centered on the two other "Ds": diplomacy and development. In March 2020 the Takuba Task Force was also launched, with special forces from 12 participating countries placed under French command to advise, assist and accompany Malian Armed Forces, in coordination with G5-Sahel partners. However, following two Malian coups, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane in June 2021. Over the ensuing months, bilateral relations have broken down, culminating in the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Mali in January 2022. On February 17, 2022, Emmanuel Macron announced a withdrawal of French and European troops from Mali, to be redeployed elsewhere in the Sahel. 

With the nearing presidential election, the question therefore arises: what direction could France’s Africa policy take under a new administration? Here, we zoom into each presidential candidate’s attitude towards France’s military involvement in Mali, and more broadly in the Sahel region. 

With less than two months to go until the presidential election, this article is part of a new series, French Foreign Policy: Heading for the Ballots, that analyzes each candidate’s approach to a number of French foreign policy issues. 

A Timeline of Events

  • Relations between the two countries have sharply deteriorated since Mali’s army staged a military coup in August 2020, and another one in May 2021. 
  • In June 2021, Emmanuel Macron announced plans to end the French-led Operation Barkhane, leaving behind a residual force of African and international (including French) special forces capabale of carrying out targeted attacks on Islamist militants. 
  • In October 2021, Macron said that France has "no goal of staying in Mali for a long time." At the Africa-France Summit in Montpellier, he emphasized that France should close military bases in Mali as quickly as possible, but there should be "strong state" and "investment projects". The French President said his country is in Africa not to support a regime, but to fight terrorism. 
  • In December 2021, Macron canceled a trip to Mali planned to meet transitional leader Colonel Assimi Goita. In addition to restrictions due to Covid-19, the cancellation of this visit was due to the risk of exposing the French president to possible anti-French demonstrations, often instrumentalized by the authorities, whose images would have had a devastating effect a few months before the presidential election.
  • In January 2022, West Africa’s bloc ECOWAS imposed a trade embargo and closed Mali’s borders after the military junta decided to postpone promised elections. In January 2022, Macron, together with the European Union, supported the "unprecedented sanctions" taken by West African leaders against the ruling junta in Mali. The President said he supported the "very clear and firm position" taken by the Economic Community of West African States, and the West African Economic and Monetary Union, "which marks the profound condemnation of the excesses of the military junta that Frances has repeatedly denounced".
  • In early January, hundreds of Russian military advisors were deployed to Mali as part of the Wagner Group, to "help Mali train its security forces," according to the Malian military. 
  • On January 31, Mali said it was expelling the French ambassador because of "hostile statements" by French officials amid escalating tensions between the West African State and its European partners. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had said following the two coups that Mali’s military government was "out of control" and illegitimate.
  • On February 17, France and allied European forces announced a withdrawal of military troops from Mali. Troops will be redeployed elsewhere in the Sahel, to continue fighting the jihadist threat in West Africa. 
  • France is expected to close its three remaining military bases in Mali "within four to six months", Macron said in the press conference. Macron defended France’s involvement in Mali, telling reporters that he "categorically rejects the notion" of failure, arguing that without French intervention in 2013 there would have been a "collapse of the Malian state". 

Key Figures

  • Malians represent France’s largest African diaspora, with more than 78,000 expatriates living on its territory (2017). Of those, the most represented age group are people aged 25-54 years. 
  • Sixteen French companies are present in Mali, including subsidiaries of BNP Paribas, Total and Laborex. Mali receives 3.3 % of French exports to the Africa and Indian Ocean region. After China, France is the country’s second-largest importer. 
  • Mali is one of the 19 priority countries for French development policy. In 2019, Mali received €145 million in French official development assistance (ODA).
  • France is Mali’s leading bilateral donor. French bilateral aid has, however, fluctuated significantly over the last decade, reaching a peak in 2015 (€148 million) before falling to €60 million in 2016. In 2019, it was estimated at €102 million. France’s aid to Mali largely includes budgetary assistance, support for the private sector, health care, and local development. 
  • In nearly nine years of military intervention, the human toll of the war in the Sahel amounts to 58 deaths on the French side since 2013, as part of the Serval and then Barkhane operations. 
  • By October 2021, a survey found that only 26.1 % percent of Bamako residents hold a "favorable" opinion of France, while 88 % percent said they liked Russia. 
  • Harris Interactive recently showed in a survey on the French view of foreign policy that 40 % of French respondents consider Mali a threat, but paradoxically, 48 % of respondents consider France's privileged relationship with Mali to be "a rather good thing".

What are French presidential candidates saying?

  • Anne Hidalgo - Parti socialiste (left) 
  1. In January 2022, the socialist candidate and mayor of Paris, announced that she wanted "France to find the path of dialogue" with Mali. According to her, France must "do everything to maintain 'Barkhane' in Mali, but not alone. (...) We must maintain this with Europe and complement this military operation with a policy of development support".
  2. Following the announcement of France’s withdrawal from Mali in February 2022, Anne Hidalgo was the only presidential candidate who advocated a "maintenance" of France’s military presence in Mali. She said that this was necessary for "our security" and because we "cannot give this victory to terrorists", even if she did not deny that "we have to adapt" to these circumstances. 
  • Yannick Jadot - Europe Écologie Les Verts (green)
  1. Following the expulsion of the ambassador of France in Mali, the candidate of Europe Écologie les Vertsadvocated  the "withdrawal of our soldiers to other countries" and that those in Mali be maintained "in the camps, the barracks". "There is no question of them going out," he said.
  2. The day after the official announcement by Emmanuel Macron of the withdrawal of French troops in Mali, Yannick Jadot reaffirmed in a press release that the solution for peace in Mali could not be only military, but must above all be diplomatic and political. A position he had already asserted previously: "We have been bogged down in the Sahel for years in a fight against terrorism because we have not put forward a political solution alongside the military solution.
  • Marine Le Pen - Rassemblement National (far-right) 
  1. In response to the expulsion of the French ambassador to Mali, Marine Le Pen tweeted: "While our soldiers have been sacrificing themselves for 10 years to save the Sahel from the Islamists, the Malian soldiers unable to protect their own country dare to throw out our ambassador. As President of the Republic, I will make France and our army respected!
  2. The far-right presidential candidate recently spoke about the issue of Mali and the presidential announcement of the military withdrawal. She notably declared that the Barkhane operation was a "failure", and that "we had to get out of this wasp, at all costs and whatever it takes". She added: "being forced to leave after having been humilitated to such an extent by the Malian government is a failure", pointing to the absence of an "exit strategy". 
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon - La France Insoumise (hard left)
  1. Jean-Luc Mélenchon stated that the region’s war could not be effectively fought with weapons only: funds should be injected to help develop the country and its people, to create productive activities, in order to contain the spread of the factors of war. He echoed the positions of other candidates in asserting that the situation was "an impasse for France, as the military had been warning for years that a war without a political project was doomed to defeat". 
  2. Regarding the recent withdrawal of French troops from Mali, Jean-Luc Mélenchon wrote in a blog post that France is leaving "a friendly country in ruins, a brotherly people torn apart, a putschist in power and a band of Russian mercenaries raiding its space like a ferocious pack." He spoke of Emmanuel Macron's "deadly mess" and denounced "the damning record of the Hollande-Macron duo". "The disaster was so largely predictable," he added.
  • Valérie Pécresse - Les Républicains (right) 
  1. Following rising tensions in Mali in recent months, Valérie Pécresse has asserted that "we must stay in the Sahel to protect this territory from the Islamist threat that can destabilize Africa. The destiny of Africa and that of Europe are completely linked". At the same time, she has spoken of the "humiliation" of France following the announcement of the French Ambassador’s expulsion from Bamako.
  2. Following France’s withdrawal of troops in Mali, the candidate of Les Républicains said on LCI, a French news channel, that "the way France is treated by the Malian military is not worthy" and asserted that "we must not leave [the region] like the Americans did in Afghanistan". 
  • Christiane Taubira - no party (left)
  1. No position of the candidate was reported, even after the presidential announcement of the coordinated withdrawal of French and European troops from Mali.
  • Eric Zemmour - Reconquête (far-right) 
  1. Following the expulsion of France’s ambassador to Mali, Eric Zemmour has called it "an utter humiliation" and has called on France to revisit its African strategy. "We are fighting to expel the jihadists from Mali, but Mali is expelling our ambassador. Our soldiers are dying for a country that humiliates us! France’s entire African policy needs to be rethought," Zemmour wrote on Twitter
  2. Regarding the presence of French soldiers in Mali, and France’s policy in Africa more broadly, Eric Zemmour has said: "I will do exactly the opposite of Emmanuel Macron in Africa. I will no longer give a lesson in democracy to African regimes (...) I will not regret anything. Colonization is human, all humans have been colonizers or colonized (...) for countries like Mali, I will be very firm on immigration.
  3. A few hours after the announcement of the withdrawal of French troops, Eric Zemmour presented his programme on defense during a meeting. The far-right candidate then deplored in particular the "bogging down" of armies in Mali in "a war without end and without precise goals."


Co-written by Lisa Klaassen, Web Content Editor, and Anissa Nabi, Assistant Policy Officer. 

Copyright: Thomas COEX / AFP

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