Global Affairs

French soldiers killed in Mali: French involvement in the Sahel

In the last two weeks, there have been three terrorist attacks on French soldiers in Mali, resulting in five deaths and six others wounded. The Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (otherwise known as Nusrat al-Islam, or JNIM for short), who are closely linked to Al-Qaeda, have since taken responsibility for the first of the attacks

This reflects a quickly worsening situation in the Sahel; a region in Africa which comprises Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad. These countries are struggling to bear the weight of a climate emergency, growing populations, increasing trafficking, and escalating terrorist attacks. 

Yet the mounting death toll of French soldiers leads to questions about why France has become so involved in the Sahel, and how its embroilment in the conflict might be affecting the region. 

The three attacks were strikingly similar: soldiers in armoured vehicles were hit with explosives, either in the form of a device or (as in the most recent attack, which took place last Friday) a suicide attack. Fifty French soldiers have been killed since the start of French involvement in the Sahel in 2013. As a result, France’s involvement in the region is coming under increasing scrutiny. French President Macron has faced criticism both for the inefficacy of his policies in the region and because of the mounting cost to France. Some have gone as far as to refer to the conflict as “France’s unwinnable West African war”, likening it to the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

France’s active military involvement in the region began with Operation Serval, a response to the increasing prominence of terrorist groups in northern Mali in 2013, which was replaced by Operation Berkhane in 2014. This project has continually grown; Macron recently decided to deploy an additional 600 troops, which puts the total at 5,100. France is not alone in its involvement in the Sahel, as UN and EU troops are also in the area. Additionally, the five Sahel nations have put together a joint force of 5,000 troops, G5 Sahel. However, these troops are struggling to deal with a clearly worsening situation – terrorist attacks are getting more numerous, and take place across a wider area than previously, especially within Mali. 

This all raises the question of why France had become so involved in the region. Indeed, French troops have been present in the Sahel intermittently since the countries were part of the French Empire in the 19th century. The traditional role of the French military in the region has been to secure French interests by ensuring continued access to labour and resources. Having said that, Macron is keen to argue that the French focus in the region has changed over time. According to the President, France’s motivations are now far more altruistic, and its mission is to improve African security and allow for greater development. In fact, in 2019 Macron argued that French involvement in Africa was about ‘our collective security’ and the need to help a region struggling from a ‘unique combination of challenges’.

Yet it is not hard to believe that Macron could be misrepresenting French motivations; France still has significant commercial and political interests in the region. Orano, a French nuclear energy company which is majority owned by the French state, gets most of its uranium from Niger, while Total, a French oil and gas company, has oil fields in Mali. Clearly, French economic interests are being damaged by the worsening violence in the Sahel. This makes many question the sincerity of Macron’s seemingly selfless motivations. 

In fact, it seems that attitudes towards French involvement are worsening amongst those who live in the Sahel region. There seems to be an increasingly widespread belief that French intervention is misguided and ineffective. There have been protests in Bamako, Mali’s capital, to demand that French troops leave the country. Moreover, the 2014 election in Burkina Faso saw the staunchly pro-French President Blaise Compaoré be replaced by Roch Marc Kaboré. 

A recent incident highlights the tensions between the French troops and local communities. On January 3rd of this year, just one day after an attack which killed two French soldiers, the French military carried out an air raid close to the village of Bounti in Mali, during which they dropped 3 bombs and killed 19 people. According to French authorities, the people killed were ‘formally identified’ before the attack took place. Their behaviour and the materials they had allowed the French troops to identify those present as belonging to an armed terrorist group. 

However, this account given by French forces is entirely different from that of witnesses. Two locals of the village, Allaye and Aissata, spoke to French newspaper Libération. They explained that the congregation was in fact part of a wedding and that the men and women present were in separate groups as part of a custom enforced by the Muslims who control the region. The locals agreed that although there were jihadists in the area, those killed by French sources were not among them; they told Libération that it was ‘certain that the people of the village were not involved with the jihads’. Of course, it is impossible to know for certain the background of those killed by French forces. Nonetheless, it is clear that people in the village believe that France has cost their family and friends their lives with its heavy-handed tactics. Events such as these obviously undermine the relationship between France and people living in the Sahel. 

These increasingly tense relations, along with the escalating violence throughout the Sahel, mean that one cannot help but wonder whether military involvement as invasive as this will really succeed in unifying such a divided region. Whether French forces are doing more harm than good remains to be seen.