PAU, France, Jan 13 – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday hosts counterparts from five Sahel countries to reassess their joint fight against a mounting jihadist revolt as France’s military role is being questioned in the region.
Tensions between France and officials from Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania could make for a tricky exchange at the talks in Pau, southwest France.
The city was home to seven of 13 soldiers killed in a helicopter collision in Mali last month, the deadliest one-day military loss for France in nearly four decades.
The leaders will attend a memorial service for the soldiers before beginning their talks at 4:30 pm (1530 GMT), which will also be attended by UN chief Antonio Guterres as well as the heads of the African Union and the EU Council.
A press conference is scheduled afterward, followed by a dinner.
Macron insists the Sahel leaders must use the occasion to publicly reiterate their support for France’s military presence — by far the largest foreign contribution to the fight against extremists aligned with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Visiting the region last month, Macron complained of a lack of “clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings” on the ground, saying he was loath to send soldiers to countries where their presence was not “clearly wanted.”
On Saturday, Defence Minister Florence Parly was blunter: “We need to determine a clear position from political leaders on what they want or not,” she told France Inter radio, noting that 41 French soldiers have been killed in the Sahel region since 2013.
Jihadist fighters have recently stepped up their campaign against military and civilian targets, with Guterres warning this month that “terrorist groups are gaining ground.”
On Thursday, 89 soldiers are killed in an attack on a military camp at Chinegodar in Niger, near the border with Mali, the worst jihadist attack in its history.
‘Down with France’
On Friday, hundreds of people gathered in the Malian capital Bamako to protest the presence of the 4,500 soldiers in France’s Barkhane operation, carrying posters reading “Down with France, Barkhane must leave” and “France is a brake on our development.”
Despite the French presence and a 13,000-member UN peacekeeping force in Mali dubbed MINUSMA, the conflict that erupted in the north of that country in 2012 has since spread to its neighbours, especially Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than a million displaced, with hundreds of troops dead, including dozens of French ones.
Macron has already called to clarify “political and strategic framework” of the Sahel fight in his talks with Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Chad’s Idriss Deby.
Mali’s Keita has said the summit will be “decisive” and “will allow us to put on the table all the questions, all the grievances, all the solutions”.
But he insisted the G5 leaders would demand a “respectable and respectful relationship” with France — Kabore of Burkina Faso described Macron’s recent insistences as “lacking in tact”.
‘All options on the table’
Macron ordered a review of the Barkhane operation after the Mali helicopter disaster, saying “all options are on the table,” implying a potential drawdown of French troops.
France has long complained that only Britain and the US have provided support for the operation, deploring the lack of significant contributions from EU allies.
Last year, only $300 million (269 million euros) of $400 million pledged by the international community in cash and material support to the Sahel was delivered, according to the French presidency.
France may also be facing the prospect of losing American help, after The New York Times reported in December that the Pentagon would reduce troop levels in Africa, or even withdraw them completely.
NGOs on Friday urged that civilians caught in the crossfire not be forgotten at Monday’s talks.
“The military response in the Sahel is part of the problem,” said Maureen Magee of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“Last year, military operations in Mali have pushed more than 80,000 people to flee. Engagement in the Sahel must put the protection of the populations at the heart of the response.”