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Paris Changing Sahel Strategy


FILE: French President Emmanuel Macron meets soldiers of Operation Barkhane, France's largest overseas military operation, in Gao, northern Mali. Taken May 19, 2017.

UPDATED TO CONFIRM ANNOUNCEMENT: French President Emmanuel Macron has today announced a strategic shift for its military forces deployed in the Sahel region of Western Africa which are helping several countries contain jihadist insurgencies.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday laid out his strategic defense priorities for France in Europe and Africa in the coming years, not least in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a growing international assertiveness of China.

"I have decided, in coordination with our partners, to make official today the end of the Barkhane operation," Macron said in the keynote speech on military policy to top generals and diplomats aboard a helicopter carrier Mediterranean naval base at Toulon.

The move was the "consequence of what we have experienced" in recent months, and a new strategy would be worked out within the next half-year, he added.

"Our military support for African countries will continue, but according to new principles that we have defined with them," said Macron.

Around 3,000 French solders remain in Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, and while those numbers are not expected to change soon, there will be "a significant adjustment for our bases in Africa", an official in Macron's office told AFP.

The goal is "to reduce the exposure and visibility of our military forces in Africa and to focus on cooperation and support... mainly in terms of equipment, training, intelligence and operational partnerships for countries that want it," the official said.

While Sahel governments have welcomed the training and firepower, in recent years French forces have faced growing hostility from some locals who see them as the ineffective occupying force of a former colonial power.

After Mali's army seized power in a 2020 coup, its military leadership ordered France to withdraw.

Macron will travel to a naval base at Toulon to officially mark the end of the Barkhane operation, following the pull-out of French forces from Mali earlier this year.

French officials have denounced fake news campaigns, in particular via social media, and noted the growing push by Russia to expand its influence in West Africa, including via the private Russian paramilitary group Wagner.

France's Irsem strategic research institute, part of its military academy, recently noted a "proliferation of online disinformation, mainly aimed at denigrating the French presence while justifying Russia's".

As a result, Macron is unlikely to give a new name to the restructured French deployment, in line with its more discreet presence.

"In terms of perception, Barkhane continues to have a very large presence on social media. We have to end this so we can shift to a different mindset," the official said.