Autopsy of a stagnation of France in the Sahel

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A vehicle from the French anti-terrorist operation “Barkhane” on patrol in the Gourma region, Mali, in July 2019. Benoit Tessier / REUTERS

The book. At a time when France is reflecting on the modalities of its military intervention in the Sahel, here is a book which has the merit of not going there by four paths. In Mali and neighboring countries, our army would lead “A lost war”, says Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos. Director of research at the Research Institute for Development (IRD), this specialist in African questions considers it necessary to prepare a French disengagement, the only valid question being to know ” when and how “.

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The interest of the book, however, is less in its recommendations to get out of the Sahel quagmire than in its examination of a failure, according to him, planned in advance. A stagnation scenario that he says he brandished from the beginning of the intervention, launched in 2013 by François Hollande.

Undoubtedly, after seven years of active military presence, the results are disappointing. The “Serval” and then “Barkhane” operations did not overcome insurgent and jihadist groups. On the contrary, they have dispersed and spread geographically outside of Mali, while inter-community violence has intensified.


At the root of this failure, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos points to a lack of analysis on the roots of the troubles in the Sahel, bordering on ideological blindness: in the era of globalized jihadism, France, secular and republican, is launched in an almost messianic way in a war against terrorism and the threat of a new Islamic State. At the risk of neglecting the specific springs of the countries of the region. However, the varnish is religious, but the agendas are local: the movements are grafted on conflicts over cattle and access to land. Above all, jihadism in Mali is above all the symptom of a failing state, plagued by corruption and incapable of exercising its sovereignty.

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For the researcher, this is France trapped. By intervening militarily, it guarantees the sustainability of the governments in place. In doing so, it removes any incentive to reform itself to corrupt and sometimes very authoritarian regimes. Even more serious, he said, it works in concert with defective local armies, guilty of atrocities and massacres of civilians perpetrated with impunity in the name of the fight against terrorism. “How is it then surprising that the Sahelians perceive it as a neocolonial power responsible for all their misfortunes? “, he asks bluntly.

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This fine connoisseur of Nigeria and the Islamist sect Boko Haram recalls that the Malian case echoes generalized problems throughout the area. He also knows the politically sensitive nature of the Sahelian subject in France. Former editor-in-chief of the journal Contemporary Africa, he resigned in March 2019 after a file devoted to the Malian conflict was suspended by the publication’s regulatory authority, the French Development Agency.

A lost war, by Marc-Antoine Perouse de Monclos (ed. JC Lattès, 200 p., 18 €).


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