PARIS – France is facing its toughest challenge in Africa in years: What to do about thousands of French troops stationed in junta-led Mali, the core of a major international anti-terrorism operation in the increasingly restive Sahel region.
Mali’s coup leaders ordered France’s ambassador to leave the West African country this week, the latest episode in a growing diplomatic crisis between Mali and its African neighbors and European partners.
A military pullout from Mali, where French forces have been active since 2013, would shake up the region.
Here's a look at the challenging relations between France and Mali.
WHAT PROMPTED TENSIONS WITH MALI?
Paris insists that Mali's military rulers have not stuck to their promise to hold new democratic elections by the end of this month as was demanded by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and other international partners.
Col. Assimi Goita, who grabbed power in an August 2020 coup, already had carried out a second coup by dismissing the civilian leaders in Mali's transitional government and putting himself in charge last year. Tensions escalated further when Goita postponed the next presidential vote until 2026.
ECOWAS responded to the delay by imposing more sanctions on Mali. Then last week, the Malian government ordered Danish soldiers out of the country. The Danes had recently arrived to join a European-led military task force known as Takuba.
“The issue we are facing is not a French-Malian issue,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday. "It's an issue between the Europeans, the Africans and Mali.”
Norway this week reversed a decision to take part in the force, and Germany is discussing what to do about its deployment.
The EU has been considering imposing sanctions on Mali, with support from France, but so far no decision has been made.
WHY HAS MALI'S GOVERNMENT TAKEN ISSUE SPECIFICALLY WITH FRANCE?
Macron drew the ire of Mali’s military leader when he said in June last year that ECOWAS had made a “mistake” in allowing Goita to become president after his second coup deposed the civilian transitional leaders — saying it's a bad signal to African neighbors.
Several top officials in Mali's transitional government including Defense Minister Sadio Camara and Prime Minister Choguel Maiga are seen as favoring closer ties with Russia instead of France, the former colonial power.
Tensions were further inflamed when Maiga went on to tell the U.N. General Assembly that France had abandoned Mali.
WHAT’S FRANCE’S NEW STRATEGY IN THE SAHEL REGION?
France has started withdrawing troops from Mali, nine years after it first intervened to drive Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali.
France has shut down its bases in Mali's northern centers of Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit in recent months but has maintained its presence in Gao near a volatile border region where operations have been concentrated in recent years.
France's so-called Barkhane force — which is involved in Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania — has decreased from 5,500 troops to 4,800 with a goal to reduce further to about 2,500 troops over the long term.
When making the announcement last year, President Emmanuel Macron said the operation was no longer suitable for the needs of the Sahel region.
France instead wants to focus on supporting specialized regional forces and neutralizing extremist operations by militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
The fight against terrorism remains France’s top priority, but Defense Minister Florence Parly suggested changes could soon affect the country’s presence in Mali — even if French troops will remain involved in other countries of the Sahel region.
“We cannot stay in Mali at any price,” she said.
Parly travels Thursday to neighboring Niger to discuss the future of the force.
France's foreign minister said on Tuesday that “the fight against terrorism will continue, and will continue in the Sahel. It will continue with the consent of the region's countries."
WHAT ABOUT RUSSIA'S WAGNER MERCENARY GROUP?
French diplomacy campaigned last year to prevent the Malian junta from making a deal with Russian mercenary group Wagner — in vain. Paris warned that such a deal would be “incompatible” with its anti-terrorism strategy in the country.
Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya.
In December, France and 15 European countries condemned in a joint statement the Malian transitional authorities’ decision to allow the deployment of Wagner forces, and accused Moscow of supporting the private military company’s use of mercenaries in the West African country.
Le Drian recently said that Wagner mercenaries “are using the country's resources in exchange for protecting the junta. They are plundering Mali.” Wagner is using the weakness of some African states to increase Russia's influence on the continent, Le Drian added in an interview to French newspaper Journal du Dimanche.
The Malian government has acknowledged that Russian soldiers are present in the country to train Malian soldiers.
Last month, the EU slapped sanctions on eight people and three oil companies linked to Wagner.
Ahmed reported from Bamako, Mali. Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.