French soldiers take down the national flag amid the end of Operation Barkhane in Mali, August 11, 2022
On August 15, France completed its military withdrawal from Mali. Returning control to Malian armed forces of its last military base, in Gao in the north of the country, France ended its nine-year counter-terrorism mission.
France’s Operation Barkhane has all the marks of a failure. Its stabilization strategy failed to deliver the promised results, with Mali still plagued by insecurity and jihadist attacks. A series of diplomatic miscalculations spurred anti-French sentiments, with accusations of neo-colonialism eventually making the political and military position untenable.
Paris’s failed communication has strengthened the ruling junta’s grip on power in Bamako, with democratic elections postponed in June for another two years. It has enabled Russia’s spread in the Western Sahel, with the arrival of Wagner Group mercenaries and the junta’s growing collaboration with Moscow.
France has slowly been supplanted within its sphere of influence.
Failure on the Battlefield
France established its military presence in Mali in 2013. The collapse of the Qaddafi regime in neighboring Libya two years earlier, a consequence of NATO’s intervention, had left a power vacuum which assisted the spread of Islamist
groups throughout the region. The influx of weapons and destabilization in the Sahara eventually reached Mali, where Tuareg insurgents and jihadist militants took over the north of the country in 2012.
With the Malian armed forces on the brink of collapse, Bamako turned to France for military support. This was the beginning of Operation Serval, later replaced by Operation Barkhane, which would deploy up to 5,500 troops.
Nine years later, despite European partners joining France in the Takuba Task
Force and the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, the Sahel is still plagued by insecurity and by Islamist militants wreaking havoc.
Weakening Civilian Institutions and the Specter of Neo-Colonialism
As France moved into the country to avoid the rout of Mali’s forces, Paris pursued a military-focused building of the state, relying on the high-profile French presence and the strengthening of Mali’s fighting capabilities. As this strategy failed to deliver stability on the military front, it destabilized the Malian State and its civilian institutions.
France still enjoys strong cultural ties and long-standing political and
economic link to its former African dependencies, often subsumed under the label Françafrique. But with the establishment of an open-ended military commitment, France’s presence became territorial. That further undermined the development of a Malian state and the legitimacy of elected leaders, as France neglected the civilian institutions.
This damage was demonstrated when French President Emmanuel Macron summoned the leaders of the G5-Sahel — a regional defence force composed of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — to a summit in Pau, France, in January 2020. While anti-French sentiments and protests were spreading across the region, Macron demanded that the Sahel leaders openly voice their support for Operation Barkhane and France’s military presence.
Mali’s civilian government was already in serious trouble because of its inability to tackle socio-economic issues, leading to mass protests. Asking the government to pick a side between France and their own discontented citizens, Paris effectively confirmed its demise and rendered President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta as illegitimate. After months of demonstrations, the military ousted Keita in August 2020 with widespread popular support.
The military leaders of the transitional authority were eager to set their own course and to reduce France’s influence. Safeguarding their grip on power, they carried out a second coup in May 2021 and installed Col. Assimi Goïta as President.
The junta invested in Russia, which had slowly been building up its presence in the country. Reports of Bamako’s recruitment of Wagner Group mercenaries accelerated France’s withdrawal after Macron announced on June 10, 2021 that Paris was ending Operation Barkhane.
Mali’s junta struck a more nationalist tone and used more openly anti-French rhetoric. But instead of attempting to deescalate the situation, French officials repeatedly responded to the junta’s verbal attacks with similarly inflammatory language. When Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maïga told the UN General Assembly in September 2021 that France was abandoning Mali “mid-air”, Macron said the remarks were “a disgrace that dishonors what is not even a government.”
On January 26, the junta’s spokesperson asked France to stop meddling in Malian affairs and to keep its “colonial reflexes” to itself. A few days later, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said the military leaders were “illegitimate” and “out of control”, prompting Malian authorities to give the French ambassador a 72-hour ultimatum to leave the country.
Failing to acknowledge the social climate in Mali and France’s unpopularity on the ground, Paris’s confrontational approach only bolstered the legitimacy of the junta among a Malian population disenchanted with France.
When the junta announced in January 2022 that it was postponing elections, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — supported by France — imposed tough sanctions. Bamako called for a day of popular mobilization, bringing thousands of Malians onto the streets.
Russia Fills the Gap
Protesters also called on the regime to strengthen its cooperation with Russia, an idea promoted for months by popular movements like the Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (Malian Patriots’ Movement).
The US Embassy in Bamako, in a June 1 report, accused Russia of an “intensified application of disinformation” in Mali and throughout Africa, especially with regard to the promotion of the Wagner Group.
Research from The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab highlighted Facebook pages “promoting pro-Russian and anti-French narratives”, encouraging the postponement of elections, and spreading positive messages about the Wagner Group. The DFR concluded, “The content shared by the network is aimed at undermining French interests, promoting Russia as a viable alternative to the West, and mobilizing public support for the government of interim President Assimi Goïta and the Malian military.”
As pro-Russian narratives spread rapidly online, France’s ability to counteract the disinformation was weakened. On March 17, the Malian junta announced the suspension of French state-funded outlets RFI and France 24, pushing back on reports of human rights abuses and civilian killings carried out by Malian Armed Forces and Russian mercenaries — reports confirmed by a New York Times investigation. The outlets are now permanently banned.
Mali and Russia: A Common Line on France
Official communications from both Bamako and Moscow regularly accuse France of neo-colonialism and stress Paris’s responsibility in the events which destabilized Mali.
During a UN Security Council briefing on June 13, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva declared that “Mali, and the entire Sahel region, is a victim of the irresponsible, unjustified and Council-unauthorized intervention in Libya in 2011.” Malian authorities said on August 19, reacting to the completion of France’s military withdrawal: “The deterioration of the security situation in Mali and in the Sahel is an immediate consequence of the intervention of France and its allies in Libya.”
In a July 31 statement, the junta questioned France’s intentions and accused Paris of having worked towards the “division and partition” of Mali. The statement further said comments by President Macron on the Malian junta’s collaboration with the Wagner Group, were “a neo-colonial, patronising and condescending attitude”. The declaration paralleled the line of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. On May 20, he called Paris’s dissatisfaction with Mali’s change of partners in security matters “a relapse of colonial thinking”.
Paris’s failure to tackle the long-standing accusations of neo-colonialism in Mali, and thus Russian disinformation online, is the culmination of a decade of French mistakes in the Sahel. As France stumbled out of Mali, Russia established a strategic foothold, slowly supplanting Paris in the sphere of influence.
In a speech on September 1, Macron called on “the France Médias Monde network”, in charge of the RFi and France24 outlet, “to confront the Russian, Chinese, or Turkish narrative…[which] explain to Africans that France is a country doing neo-colonization and setting up its army on their land”.
But as the Malian example shows, the absence of an effective strategic and diplomatic approach renders Paris’s communication efforts ineffective. Even worse for RFi and France 24 journalists, Macron is implying that they should be tools for political and government statements — that co-optation is unlikely to “confront the Russian narratives” which are feeding off France’s wayward policy and operations in Mali.