President Emmanuel Macron hosts African leaders on Wednesday ahead of an expected announcement that France will withdraw its forces from Mali after a nearly decade-long deployment to fight a jihadist insurgency.
Multiple sources told AFP that Macron will announce that French forces will leave Mali and redeploy elsewhere in the Sahel region, after relations with the ruling military junta collapsed.
Macron is scheduled to travel to Brussels on Thursday for a two-day EU-Africa summit. But the French presidency announced that it will hold a press conference at 0800 GMT at the Elysee on “France’s participation in the Sahel region”, when the official announcement is likely to be made.
The deployment of troops in Mali was fraught with problems for France, as 48 of the 53 soldiers during the Barkhane mission in West Africa took their lives in the country.
France initially deployed its forces against jihadists in Mali in 2013, but the rebellion has not been completely quelled, and new fears have now emerged that jihadists are rushing into the Gulf of Guinea.
The sources said the deployment of a European force in Mali known as Takoba – a project pushed by Macron to spread the security burden in the volatile region – would also come to an end.
The expected announcement of the withdrawal comes at a critical time for Macron, just days before the president’s long-awaited announcement that he will run for re-election in the April elections.
It also coincides with Macron’s pursuit of a leadership role in international diplomacy as he presses Russia to de-escalate the standoff over Ukraine.
The working dinner hosted by Macron on Wednesday, starting at 1930 GMT, will bring together the leaders of France’s main allies in the Sahel – Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
Obviously, officials from Mali and Burkina Faso, which also experienced a recent coup, were not invited.
Other African leaders will also attend alongside European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as well as Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
There are a total of 25,000 foreign forces currently deployed in the Sahel.
Of those, about 4,300 French soldiers are set to fall under the reduction announced last year to about 2,500 in 2023 from a peak of 5,400.
Other forces deployed in Mali are the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission (MINUSMA) established in 2013 and the European Union Mission in Mali, an EU military training mission aimed at improving the capacity of the Malian army to fight terrorists.
About 2,400 French troops are deployed in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane in addition to the European Union’s Takoba force formed in 2020, which was intended to increase numbers while reducing the French deployment.
According to a French source, who asked not to be named, even after departure, France will provide the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the EUTM with air support and medical support, even after departure.
Relations between France and Mali plunged to new lows after the junta led by strongman Asmi Guetta refused to stick to the calendar for a return to civilian rule.
The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the highly controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to bolster its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.
Especially with the French elections looming, Macron’s priority is to ensure that any withdrawal does not draw comparisons to the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan last year.
However, Paris intends to continue the fight against jihadists in the broader region, where movements affiliated with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State have retained the ability to launch attacks despite eliminating prominent leaders.
“We need to reinvent our military partnership with these countries,” a French presidential source said.
It’s not about transferring what’s going on in Mali elsewhere, it’s about strengthening what’s going on in Niger and supporting the south more. ”