Macron Signals Upcoming Reduction of French Military Presence in the Sahel

On January 19, French President Emmanuel Macron said that recent successes against jihadis and the pledge of additional EU troops makes it possible to “adjust” French military operations in the western Sahel. More likely is that growing opposition to the costs of French military operations and the upcoming French elections are driving Macron to the decision. The French military presence—Operation Barkhane—numbers 5,100 and cost a reported $1.1 billion in 2020. The French Ministry of Defense has signaled that France is likely to announce the withdrawal of 600 troops in February. Meanwhile, demonstrations have popped up in some West African capitals, with organizers denouncing the French presence as neocolonial.

Macron’s stated justification for a drawdown strains credibility. Jihadi groups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are far from defeated. On January 21, jihadi forces killed three Malian soldiers and three days later they killed an additional six. Concerns are rising that jihadi activity will spread further into Senegal and Ivory Coast. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, West and Central Africa already hosts some 7.2 million [PDF] “people of concern”—including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees, and stateless persons— with many coming from or located in the Sahel. EU nations are augmenting Task Force Takuba in an attempt to bolster regional security, but the partnership is still getting off the ground.

France is looking toward the presidential elections in 2022. Recent polling data shows that for the first time, a majority of French now oppose French military activity in West Africa. The negative, popular reaction to the deaths of thirteen French soldiers in Mali in 2019 illustrates the limited tolerance among the French public for military casualties. Macron is a shrewd politician, belying his technocratic image. His party fared poorly in 2020 municipal elections. Hence a French drawdown in West Africa makes domestic political sense.

But, if the French drawdown is substantial, it seems likely that there will be an upsurge of Islamist activity; the armed forces of the weak Francophone West African states have become dependent on the French to hold the line. If the French leave, calls for greater American involvement will likely grow, especially if jihadis sweep toward beleaguered capitals and move to establish Islamist polities hostile to the West. Should such calls occur (as they did following French defeat in Vietnam a generation ago), the Biden administration would do well to proceed with great caution, given the complexity of the situation and the relative lack of granular knowledge about the Sahel in the United States.