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Macron’s African Waterloo

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.  

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is marching toward his Waterloo in the Sahel, just as he is about to launch his reelection campaign at home. 

France’s accelerating ejection from Mali — after nine years of military operations against jihadist rebels — risks undermining the French president’s attempt to rally European Union partners behind the goal of “strategic autonomy.” 

Military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso — staged against feckless civilian governments unable to stem the spread of jihadist violence despite French and European support — have left France and the EU in an untenable position. 

They now find themselves providing military support, training, budget assistance and development aid to regimes that lack democratic legitimacy and have been placed under sanctions by their West African neighbors. And yet, if they leave, Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries are positioned to fill the vacuum, leaving jihadists with a freer hand to then use the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahel as a rear base. 

Tensions escalated this week, when Malian President Assimi Goïta, playing the anti-colonial card to curry popular support, ordered the French ambassador to leave within 72 hours. His decision came after French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian described the Bamako government as “illegitimate” and “out of control.” Mali also told Danish special forces soldiers to go home because they had joined a French-led European task force without its permission.  

By announcing a gradual end to Operation Barkhane — the French-led counter-insurgency operation centered on Mali — last July, Macron had hoped to avoid the long-running Sahel intervention turning into his personal Afghanistan, while aiming to Europeanize the security mission in the region at the same time. That bet now looks like a losing one. 

French counter-insurgency actions continue. But now Norway has decided not to join the task force after all, and Sweden has said it will withdraw by the end of the year. French army convoys have also come under attack from civilian villagers as well as jihadists in Niger and Burkina Faso, in one case having to open fire to extricate themselves. 

The collapse of Paris’ Sahel adventure was predictable. The military historian Michel Goya noted that, since the end of the Algerian war six decades ago, no overseas operation entailing the loss of French lives had lasted longer than nine years. 

Goya studied 32 military operations involving more than 1,000 soldiers under every French president since 1961. He argues that while Paris has conducted numerous successful short-term actions to repel rebels or rescue civilians in Mali, Chad, the former Zaire and Mauritania, longer-term stabilization missions in the Sahel, Lebanon, Bosnia and Afghanistan — whether conducted alone or in coalition — have largely failed. 

Foreign policy rarely, if ever, sways the outcome of French presidential elections, but the Mali debacle comes at a sensitive time. It has fractured a long-standing consensus among all mainstream parties in support of the Sahel mission and handed Macron’s opponents a stick with which to beat him.

“We are being expelled. In this kind of war, you can’t keep forces on the ground without full cooperation with the government in place, whether it is legitimate or illegitimate,” Senator Bruno Retailleau of the conservative Les Ripublicains party told France Inter radio. “It’s part of a wider loss of influence, because the weakening of our country on the international stage reflects the weakening of our country internally.” 

The EU, for its part, has been swept along in support of French policies despite having adopted an updated strategy for the Sahel last year that emphasized conditionality and the imperative of local ownership in long-sought reforms. The events in Mali will be giving many cause to reconsider.  

Paris is very much an outlier in a Europe that is mostly conflict-averse and regards far-flung military operations as deeply undesirable — except perhaps under the blue helmet of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.  

This raises serious questions about the EU’s new “Strategic Compass,” a more ambitious blueprint for European foreign, security and defense policy that is expected to be adopted by EU leaders next month. Despite fundamental differences between France and other EU countries, diplomats say there has been surprisingly little argument over the 35-page document, which includes the goal of a new 5,000-strong rapid deployment capability to put “boots on the ground with the risk of casualties,” in the words of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell. 

There are only two possible reasons why EU governments are not fighting over this: Either they have had an improbable transplant of steel into their collective spine — perhaps due to seeing Russian tanks massed around Ukraine — or they simply don’t believe the promises the document makes will come to pass. 

Watching the Franco-European fiasco in the Sahel, the latter seems more likely. 

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