Divided opinion, critical media, parliamentarians mobilized: after eight years of uninterrupted military intervention in the Sahel, more and more voices in France are questioning the relevance of this commitment, at a time when the executive is reflecting on the ‘alleviate.
The recent death of 5 French soldiers in Mali in a week has sparked a vigorous debate on the largest French foreign operation that is the Barkhane force, 5,100 strong, which fights against jihadist groups and tries to help states restore their authority in a semi-desert region the size of Europe.
For the first time since the start of Operation Serval in January 2013, which Barkhane succeeded in 2014, half of the French (51%) no longer support this intervention in Mali, according to an Ifop poll published on Monday. Only 49% of those questioned are still in favor, against 73% in February 2013 and 58% at the end of 2019.
This opinion poll carried out under the influence of emotion, just a few days after French losses in the region, nevertheless echoed a growing impatience, in Parliament as in the French media, in the face of mixed results.
“France in the face of the Malian quagmire”, headlined the editorial of the daily Le Monde on Wednesday, stressing that the operations carried out in the Sahel “have certainly put out of harm’s way several jihadist leaders, but have neither prevented the rise of violence between civilians, nor Islamist breakthroughs in central Mali “.
“The human and financial cost of the operation is unrelated to the benefits drawn”, slice for his part Bastien Lachaud, deputy of La France Insoumise (far left), stressing that “no attack on French soil has was organized from the Saharo-Sahelian zone “.
“Our forces are doing an exceptional job, but if Barkhane can win battles, it is not for her alone to win the war”, estimates for his part the deputy of the presidential majority Thomas Gassilloud, wishing for more involvement of the States Sahelians.
– “To withdraw, no. To transfer, yes” –
In January 2020, at the Pau summit (southern France), the French president and his counterparts from the G5 Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) decided to intensify the anti-jihadist fight to stem a spiral of violence .
Barkhane has since won undeniable tactical victories alongside more mobilized local armies, in particular against the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS) in the “three borders” area, on the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
But the central powers of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest these remote areas and to offer protection, education and basic services to populations.
The other jihadist group active in the region, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), affiliated with Al-Qaeda, offers precisely alternatives to this shortage of essential services, hoping to conquer the local populations. And it has regained operational vigor, now representing the core target of the French and Malian soldiers.
After the National Assembly last Tuesday, it is in the Senate, next Wednesday, that the Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly will have to defend Barkhane’s record and answer a flurry of questions on the future of the French operation.
“We aim for the armed forces of the Sahel to have the capacity to ensure security in the Sahel” but “it is a strategy that requires long-term efforts,” said the minister, while denouncing multiple attempts to discredit French action.
“There is a kind of information war” led by Russia, Turkey, but also the jihadists, whom the general staff suspects of having stirred up a recent rumor of blunder from the French army, categorically denied.
These debates come at a time of difficult choices for the executive, which wants to change Barkhane’s system to find a way out as the 2022 presidential election approaches, without risking seeing the jihadists regain ground.
A new summit in mid-February in N’Djamena must record a first withdrawal of 600 soldiers sent as reinforcements a year ago, thanks to the arrival of European troops to support the French.
“Today Barkhane must change,” said Colonel Raphaël Bernard, a former high-ranking officer within Barkhane on Wednesday, before the Association of Defense Journalists.
“To withdraw, no. But we must move towards reducing our footprint on the ground while providing local armies with high added value tools, intelligence, drones, strikes, air mobility, to support them at any time. it doesn’t matter where, ”he suggested.