France and Mali need a time out
In 2022, every month brings a new diplomatic low in the French-Malian relationship. Mali’s ruling junta has blended legitimate concerns about sovereignty with more provocative measures designed to antagonize France. For its part, France has allowed itself to be drawn into a petty and counterproductive cycle.
In January, the junta expelled France’s ambassador. In February, France accelerated the end, or at least the drawdown, of its counterterrorism operations in Mali. In March, the Malian government suspended Radio France International and France24. In April, Mali and France plunged into an information war over imputing responsibility for a mass grave discovered (or staged) in northern Mali. And in May, Mali severed defense accords with France and announced that it intends to withdraw from the French-backed G5 Sahel Joint Force, a regional security initiative.
France’s best option, in the current environment, is to take a strategic pause in its efforts to shape Malian politics and the politics of the wider Sahel region. Such a pause would entail reacting indifferently to any further diplomatic provocations from Mali. The pause would also entail encouraging West African regional authorities to ease sanctions on the Malian economy and defer the question of when the junta will hold elections — essentially, France and its West African allies might consider ignoring Mali for the rest of 2022 and shrugging at whatever else the junta comes up with. Such a policy would, admittedly, amount to rewarding the junta for its stubborn refusal to yield power to civilians. Yet punishing and arguing with the junta has not worked, and a diplomatic breather might allow for an opening within a few months — and might also avoid pushing Mali further into the arms of Russia.
A French-Malian pause and then reset would also be in the interest of the United States, especially because Mali is a key piece of an increasingly delicate regional puzzle that involves growing threats to democracy and security in the overwhelming majority of West Africa’s fifteen states. There is little to gain in supporting failing French and regional West African policies, even if those policies theoretically serve U.S. goals such as promoting democracy, countering Russian influence, and containing insurgents. The United States, less resented than France in the Sahel, might try a phase of quiet and exploratory diplomacy aimed at discerning what could bring Mali’s junta to hand power back to civilians. This moment calls for creativity, especially as juntas in Mali’s neighbors Guinea and Burkina Faso take cues from the Malian junta’s defiance of regional and Western powers. There is a middle ground between coddling dictators and turning Mali into a pariah.
The tension between the governments of France and Mali stems from three intertwined factors. First, anti-French sentiment in Mali was growing before the country’s current military rulers took power in August 2020, and the junta and their civilian allies have played to that sentiment as part of their political appeal to the Malian people.
Second, France and most of its allies in West Africa want Mali’s junta to hand power back to civilians as soon as possible; for its part, the junta is dragging its feet. Third, the tensions between France and Mali prompted the junta to turn to Russia and the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group private military contractor in 2021; as a result, the Mali-Russia relationship has become yet another source of tension between Bamako and Paris.
Seeking to compel the junta to leave, France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have punished Mali diplomatically and imposed a sweeping sanctions regime. It has not worked. The junta has not meaningfully budged, even amid mounting defaults. Even among ECOWAS heads of state and within other regional organizations, there are signs that support for continued sanctions is slipping.
Meanwhile, ordinary Malians appear to have rallied around the flag — and perhaps retain their disgust with the country’s civilian politicians, including the now-deceased president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was ousted in 2020 after serving seven years as the head of state.
A recent poll conducted by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation found near-universal support among respondents for the junta — a shocking 95 percent were either “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with military authorities’ performance. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they believe the departure of France’s Operation Barkhane is improving security, and 66 percent said they support Russian deployments and consider the Russian troops to be trainers rather than Wagner Group mercenaries.
It appears that neither the junta’s worst atrocity, a massacre in the central Malian town of Moura in March (reportedly with the assistance of Russian soldiers), nor the junta’s arrests of major politicians in Bamako, have turned ordinary Malians against the military – one of the most trusted institutions in Mali even before the coup. A combination of the military’s pre-existing appeal, the junta’s actual performance, its apparently successful management of perceptions, and France’s and ECOWAS’ perceived political overreach have given the junta an extremely strong domestic political position.
France has a perfect right to defend itself against unproven accusations, such as the charge that French soldiers were the killers who filled the mass grave in northern Mali. Yet France does not have to fight and second-guess every major decision the junta makes. Mali’s apparent withdrawal from the G5 Sahel is a case in point; the G5 Sahel Joint Force has been a shaky project since its creation in 2017, struggling with financing, professionalism, international skepticism (including from the United States) and battlefield performance despite France’s enthusiastic backing for it.
Mali’s withdrawal appears calculated to elicit just the kind of reaction it has evoked — public laments from France and a last-ditch effort by France’s close ally Chad to salvage the project. Letting Mali’s decision pass without objection would have been wiser; France has tried in many ways to break the cycle of provocations, but France has not yet tried indifference.
International relations are about more than emotions, but it seems that Mali’s authorities, and many ordinary citizens in Mali and its neighbors want to feel that their countries’ sovereignty is taken seriously. Mali is an extreme case in terms of the near-rupture with France, but there are recurring sign of rising anti-French sentiment in other Sahelian countries: in November, protesters in Mali’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger blocked a French convoy at multiple points along its route; in Chad, protests in February and again in May 2022 featured anti-French slogans and even sporadic acts of violence against symbols of France.
When France maintains an unrelentingly activist foreign policy posture in the region, it risks undercutting not just its own credibility but also the credibility of its favored heads of state, including in Niger and Chad. The seeming French diplomatic victories in such countries — for example, the April vote by Niger’s National Assembly to authorize expanded deployments of foreign (read: French) troops — could prove pyrrhic. France was also able to dictate the terms of its military involvement in Mali from 2013 to 2020, but ultimately suffered serious and ongoing political blowback there.
France needs a new and softer diplomatic approach to Mali not just to repair the breach there, but also in anticipation of the similar problems that may confront it elsewhere in West Africa. France can work around Mali in a hostile way, coaxing other West African countries into accepting a French military presence as France and the region brace for the spread of insecurity into the coastal states of West Africa. Or France can work around Mali in a gentler way, leaving the door open to a reconciliation — and perhaps to a redefined relationship with the region as a whole, one where France acknowledges that its former colonies do not want to be treated as juniors and as compliant recipients of security policies crafted in Paris.