France in the Sahel: “It’s a failure, Operation Barkhane failed to stop jihadist progression”

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A collective of about forty associations and academics has just published a column in the newspaper The world, calling on President Emmanuel Macron to review French policy in the Sahel. A big problem for France because of its military and diplomatic investments of almost ten years, but which have already shown its borders. The anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, emeritus director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), one of the signatories, is a guest at RFI.

RFI: In this column published in the newspaper The world, you start from an observation, that of the failure of French policy in the Sahel. Is it also clear? ?

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan : If it’s so obvious? I don’t think anyone can deny it’s a failure. Operation Barkhane failed to stop the jihadist advance and the majority of Malian opinion turned against it. Relations with the Malian government are indeed downright deplorable. Governance issues have not progressed at all. We cannot say that it is a great success if this failure certainly has several causes, but part of the causes of this failure lies in France.

You mentioned the failure in Mali. What about other countries in the Sahel ?

It’s complicated because there really are double standards in French politics. There is an extremely strong condemnation of the coups in Mali, a much more moderate and unsanctioned condemnation when it comes to Burkina and Guinea, and almost approval when it comes to Chad. So this variation of French politics in terms of double standards and anti-French sentiment, especially against French leaders, is indeed reflected in most other countries. Of course, the situation is different in every country. We know that Niger currently has a different policy, let’s say both internally and externally, for example, than Burkina, Guinea or Mali.

In what way has French policy been lacking in consultation in recent years when we consider that the French parliament has been consulted several times about the war in the Sahel and that Emmanuel Macron, for example, organized an Africa-France summit with young Africans a year ago ?

The least that can be said is that there has been no real consultation with African governments on all the pending and negotiable issues. The Mali problem started in Kidal when the French army, when it liberated northern Mali with Operation Serval, refused to let Kidal in by the Malian army. This completely upset Malian public opinion, which initially favored French intervention and then began to suspect that this intervention had other motives or that there was complicity with the separatists. From then on, this unilateral decision by France completely changed the relationship. Then there were many unfortunate government interventions: when Emmanuel Macron one day called the African heads of state to Pau, this was, of course, perceived in an extremely negative way by public opinion. On another day, he convenes a France-Africa summit, but decides that it is reserved only for representatives of African associations and that the heads of state should stay at home this time. These are completely one-sided decisions that show a certain contempt or condescension towards African countries. This is one of the reasons for this rejection that has now grown massive from France to the Sahel.

Under these circumstances, how could a French parliamentary debate or with local African civil society organizations change the situation? ?

I personally don’t think there are magical solutions. I think that a debate is desirable, therefore all forms of debate are good to have, a parliamentary debate as a more open debate in public opinion. We cannot expect a miracle from a parliamentary debate. That said, it should be noted that there are still decision-making processes that are solitary or involve a few that are extremely regrettable. And this is a long time ago. The first beginning of this crisis in the Sahel was the war against Libya. And here too we cannot say that there was a serious debate about whether or not to intervene in Libya. This has worsened the whole situation in the Sahel. So yes, debate in all its forms.

Is it possible to rebuild France’s relations with the Sahel and beyond with Africa without settling Françafrique’s accounts from the colonial period? ?

I have long believed in the need to revisit that past and actually settle those scores. The accounts of the colonization have not yet been settled, nor have those of Françafrique. Yes, it is indeed necessary to take stock of this period and of the many mistakes and also crimes that France may have experienced during this period. Going back to this past in a serious, serene and demanding way seems absolutely necessary to me. We have talked about it for Algeria, but it also applies to relations with the French-speaking countries of Africa. Absolutely, it is essential.

Isn’t this change in French policy in the Sahel likely too late at the point where we are now? ?

Better late than never ! We can always regret that this reorientation did not come sooner. If it intervenes now, it is important. I want to emphasize one thing; of this reorientation, one of the most important elements to put an end to this condescension, this contempt and this arrogance that French leaders often have, whoever they are and that they have had in the past, is that ‘they still compared to Africa. France, precisely because of its colonial past, is much less able to profile itself and pay attention to the words it makes and the judgments it makes.

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