Mali-France: I love you, I love you not

By Bokar Sangaré
Posted on Friday, 4 February 2022 11:08

Harandane Dicko/AP/SIPA © AP Photo/Harandane Dicko

The announcement that the French ambassador in Bamako was expelled on 31 January has heightened tensions between Paris and Bamako. This is not the first time that the two countries have been at loggerheads since independence.

“The Republic of Mali’s government officially announces the end of its diplomatic, military and economic relations with France.” This communiqué, which was relayed over and over again at the end of January, turned out to be fake. Even so, the reason it was able to gain so much traction is that the two countries’ relationship mirrors that of Scylla and Charybdis. The rupture has not taken place – at least not yet – but the 31 January expulsion of the French ambassador, Joel Meyer, signifies a further deterioration in relations between the two countries. This decision follows a series of clashes between the authorities in Paris and Bamako, who disagree over a number of important issues, such as deploying private Russian security companies from the Wagner nebula, extending the transition period and defence agreements.

Tensions rose sharply at the UN last September when Mali’s prime minister, Choguel Maïga, accused France of “abandoning Mali in mid-air” in the fight against terrorism. Since then, their animosity has worsened and leaders of the two countries regularly hurl insults at each other in the media.

“Unacceptable remarks”

The latest episode was when Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign affairs minister, referred to the Malian government as “illegitimate” and accused it of taking “irresponsible measures.” His Malian counterpart, Abdoulaye Diop, responded saying “these insults and contemptuous remarks [were] unacceptable and not a proof of greatness”.

This exchange came after the Malian government asked Denmark to “immediately withdraw its contingent deployed within the framework of the [European-sent military] Takuba force”. According to the Malian government, “this deployment took place without its consent and without consideration of the additional protocol applicable to European partners operating in Mali”. The fact is that France negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), under which Takuba is deployed, at the initiative of this special counter-terrorism force. “We cannot remain [in this situation]. We will figure out how to adapt our mechanism based on the new situation,” said Le Drian, referring to a “break in the political and diplomatic framework”.

Hooked up with Chirac, Sarkozy, de Villepin

There is no doubt that relations between Paris and Bamako are going through a turbulent period, but historically, this situation is not new. In the aftermath of independence, Modibo Keïta, Mali’s first president and a figure of pan-African nationalism, had demanded that French troops leave “for the same reasons of sovereignty as today”, says Cheick Oumar Sissoko, former leader of the Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocratie et l’Indépendance (SADI) party. In 2005, this renowned filmmaker, then minister of culture, ended a symposium titled Mali-France: Regards sur une Histoire Partagée (Mali-France: Glimpses of a Shared History) by saying that relations between the two countries were “complex and changing” and had “experienced different fortunes”. “Many populations in West African countries want to denounce the actions of ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States], which seems to be defending France’s interests,” said Sissoko. “France’s fate in Africa is being determined in Mali at the moment.”

He reiterates that sovereignist tendencies were expressed following Moussa Traoré’s refusal, at the 16th Franco-African summit in La Baule (1990), to bow to the position of Paris, which pushed his country to depend on “French aid”. “He resisted by vilifying the La Baule speech, which he saw as the cause of all evils,” says historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. Traoré’s successor, Alpha Oumar Konaré, also refused to respond to what he saw as “a summons” from Jacques Chirac to Dakar. Years later, Amadou Toumani Touré refused to sign an agreement on readmitting illegal migrants. “Both countries were trying to show off on this sensitive issue. We were not asking for an agreement,” says Nicolas Normand, former ambassador to Mali. “Sarkozy simply wanted the French to believe that he was going to sign an agreement, and Mali did not want to cooperate when it came to returning immigrants.” Normand believes that “there has never been a warm relationship” between France and Mali.

France can only do so much, it is nothing without Africa. It understands that its era of influence is slipping away.

Their relationship has certainly had its ups and downs, and there is no shortage of anecdotes to illustrate this. According to a former minister, Konaré was angry that Chirac’s foreign affairs minister, Dominique de Villepin, had illegally exported a gift meant for the French head of state from Mali. France ended up returning it. Known for speaking “in an inappropriate manner”, according to his African interlocutors, de Villepin gave injunctions and “told the presidents what to do”.

Accusations of a plot

According to Ibrahim Maïga, a researcher on peace and security issues, the extent of the current tensions is due to the fact that “never before has France been able to exert so much influence because of its [military] presence and its ambiguous relations with certain armed movements, notably the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA)”. In fact, Paris has been accused of plotting to destabilise Mali, which they feel is part of its own backyard, where it is trying to avoid a rebellion. Maïga recalls that France was losing ground in the Sahel before it “struck a blow with Operation Serval [in 2013] to reposition itself”.

“The term ‘backyard’ has continued to be used in certain circles, such as in the press, because journalists love everything to do with Françafrique, but it is a totally obsolete concept,” says Normand. Calling Traoré’s putsch in 1968 a “pro-French coup d’état”, Sissoko asserts that this ‘backyard’ has always existed. Mali was under France’s control “until the arrival of structural adjustment programmes, which significantly reduced its influence”. “France can only do so much, it is nothing without Africa. It understands that its era of influence is slipping away,” he says.

France is currently struggling with a maelstrom of criticism that is spreading throughout Africa, beyond Mali’s borders. In the eyes of many observers, the Malian transitional authorities, in their search for legitimacy, “have developed an outrageous anti-French nationalism”. The economic and financial sanctions imposed by ECOWAS and the West African Monetary and Economic Union (UEMOA), following the announcement that the presidential election would be postponed, seem to have revived this nationalist sentiment.

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