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April 26, 2022 / Riskline Informer

The collapse of French-Malian relations

Despite the collapse in French-Malian relations, Mali’s ongoing security situation is unlikely to change significantly. Poor relations will likely affect French business concerns in the country and possibly travel as well.

By Indi Phillips


The French withdrawal from Mali has been on the horizon for some time. France’s ongoing disengagement has created room for Russian involvement and while France’s withdrawal will not likely trigger a sudden collapse, reliance on Russian paramilitaries is unlikely to fulfill the needs of the Malian security forces better than that of the French. The risk of short term collapse in France’s absence is small though long-term security trends remain uncertain.

A diplomatic spat triggered the final collapse of French-Malian relations after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian questioned the legitimacy of Mali’s interim president, Colonel Assimi Goïta. This precipitated first the expulsion of the French Ambassador from Mali in late January and soon afterwards, the decision to withdraw French troops from the country.

Early in 2013, the Malian government originally requested France’s assistance in military operations against separatist and jihadist groups active in the north of the country. France’s first operation, Operation Serval, achieved moderate success. However it became clear that the issue of jihadist expansion affected Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. These countries became known as the G5-Sahel and the sites for a larger operation, launched by the French in August of 2014: Operation Barkhane. Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic also sent troops.

In Mali, the French military made the decision to cooperate with the separatist Taureg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to combat the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), its successor group Al- Mourabitoun and Ansar Dine, which had split with the MNLA and driven it out of northern Mali. Through both the lens of popular politics and Malian military strategy, the separatists were seen as no different from the jihadist groups since they had previously aligned with them and only changed course after the jihadists’ betrayal. France’s alliance was seen as disrespectful to Malian interests. Furthermore, as time passed, France’s presence was increasingly perceived as unnecessary and emboldening regional separatist movements as counterweights to jihadist groups without making real progress against the Islamist militants.

These tensions came to a head following the May 2021 coup, Colonel Goïta, who had served in the northern conflict, held staunch anti-France views. These views fed neatly into growing anti-French sentiments as frequent militant activity continued despite the European security mission. By the time the comment by the French Foreign Minister landed, the atmosphere was ripe for wider anti-France action and indeed anti-France protests erupted calling for diplomatic and military expulsion. French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments at a summit in Brussels poured fuel onto flames as he warned the Malian junta of the dangers of negotiating with terrorists.

Both Macron and Le Drian’s comments were taken to support the view that the French had no real understanding of the Malian position and therefore had no place in the country. The ambassador was expelled and French forces are in the process of departing, along with other European military missions. Russia and more importantly, the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, is stepping into the vacuum. This shift towards Russia is unlikely to achieve what French military backing and action could not, but the mercenaries are more outwardly sympathetic to the junta’s needs and willing to interfere in domestic politics on behalf of their employers. Nonetheless, the expulsion of the French presence remains widely popular in the country, buttressing the junta in its ongoing disputes with the international community over the holding of new elections.


The security situation across the country is not likely to deteriorate quickly following French withdrawal, however long term stability is questionable as is how anti-France sentiment will manifest itself and affect French businesses, French nationals living in the country and those wishing to travel to Mali.

Indi Phillips is a Lebanon-based political and security risk analyst covering Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

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