” The time has come; the continuation of our engagement in the Sahel will not be done in the same way, “Macron said at a high-profile press conference on Thursday, announcing a” profound transformation “of his country’s military presence in the region – but providing few details.
France currently has around 5,100 troops deployed in the semi-arid strip at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert as part of its Operation Barkhane, headquartered in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
Its forces are mainly focused on fighting armed groups in Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger. Last week, France suspended joint military operations with Malian forces and ceased providing defense advice following the country’s second coup for nine months. Paris cited the failure of the new military government to give guarantees to hold free elections for its decision.
“We will make an organized withdrawal,” Macron told reporters, adding that details, including the number of troops France is keeping in the region, will be finalized by the end of June.
“We will have to dialogue with our African and European partners. We will keep an anti-terrorist pillar with special forces with several hundred forces … and there will be a second pillar which will be cooperation, and which we will strengthen. “
Natacha Butler of Al Jazeera, reporting from Paris, said the timing for the comments was important, highlighting last month’s coup in Mali and a meeting next week of NATO allies in Brussels, as well than the next French elections.
“Operation Barkhane and its presence in the Sahel have become increasingly unpopular in France,” she said. “More than 50 [French] soldiers have died since 2013 and there is therefore no doubt that Emmanuel Macron is well aware that French public opinion is turning against him.
The announcement came after Macron in February – during a virtual summit with the leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel countries, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – expressed his intention to reduce the French workforce in a few months. .
At the time, Macron’s G5 counterparts warned him of the dangers of a quick withdrawal.
Presence for years
Conflict in the western part of the Sahel between state forces and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIL) and al-Qaeda has ravaged much of the region over the past decade, triggering a major humanitarian crisis.
Nearly 7,000 people have died as the fighting escalates last year, according to data from the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. At the end of January, the United Nations warned that “relentless violence” had displaced more than two million people inside the country, up from 490,000 at the start of 2019.
Last year, the French government increased its staff in Barkhane by 600.
France’s military engagement for years has sparked sporadic protests in Mali and other countries, with protesters claiming its presence is contributing to the deepening of the crisis.
In March, the United Nations reported that a French airstrike in central Mali earlier this year killed 19 civilians at a wedding party. France has denied the UN findings, saying its forces struck an “armed terrorist group” near the village of Bounti, while Macron frequently condemned the animosity towards France, the region’s former colonial power. .
Before Thursday’s press conference, information citing military and diplomatic sources indicated that an “adjustment” of the French presence would depend on the involvement of other European countries in the Takuba Task Force combating armed groups in the Sahel in the United States. alongside the Malian and Nigerian armies. These forces have intensified in recent months.