France says it will "continue to fight terrorism next door with the Sahel countries," as diplomats signal the European country and its allies may announce troop withdrawal from the West African country this week.
The conditions are no longer in place to continue the fight against militants in Mali and President Emmanuel Macron has asked to re-organise French troops in the region, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said.
"If the conditions are no longer in place so that we can act in Mali, which is clearly the case, then we will continue to fight terrorism next door with the Sahel countries," Le Drian told France 5 on Monday.
France is considering withdrawing its troops from Mali, but adapting its strategy to prevent militancy spreading south may prove complex and contribute to uncertainty in the region.
A French drawdown would mean the European special forces Takuba task force would also leave, with diplomats saying that the political, operational and legal conditions to remain becoming increasingly difficult.
Western foreign ministers and senior diplomats held crunch talks on their countries' future presence fighting militants in Mali on Monday after three weeks of consultations amid deterioration in relations between Mali and France, the main foreign military power in the Sahel region.
Two European and one African diplomatic source said regional and international leaders would meet on Wednesday for dinner in Paris to hold discussions with President Macron ahead of an EU-Africa summit on Thursday.
The French presidency did not respond to requests for comment.
"The president wants us re-organise. We aren't going, but we will re-organise to ensure the fight against terrorism continues," Le Drian said.
Withdrawal from Mali
Three diplomatic sources said the announcement on a withdrawal from Mali would be made this week.
A draft document seen by Reuters news agency, distributed to countries involved in Mali that has yet to be approved, says that France and its Takuba partners had agreed to coordinate withdrawal of their military resources from Malian territory.
It is not clear what will happen to troops that withdraw from Mali. France has already cut troops in the Sahel with the aim of reducing numbers from around 5,000 to 2,500-3,000 by 2023. About half of its forces are based in Mali, so Paris would need to decide where to put them and maintain operational efficiency.
The Takuba mission has about 600-900 troops of which 40 percent are French and includes medical and logistical teams. It has been more of a symbolic force accompanying local troops.
Few diplomats believe it can survive a withdrawal from Mali, but Paris hopes to convince its allies to support countries in the Gulf of Guinea, notably Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin and Ghana, where there are concerns militancy is spreading due to porous borders.
Anti-France sentiments grow
Anti-French feeling in West Africa has put its military role in doubt.
In Mali, the animosity has deep roots, dating back to colonial days.
The military junta that seized power twice, in 2020 and 2021, is trying to capitalise on that, said Rodrigue Kone, a researcher at the South African-based Institute for Security Studies.
"There has always been latent anti-French feeling due to a sort of condescension, the arrogance of French policy in Africa, which hasn't seen real change since the end of colonisation," he said.
Abdourahmane Idrissa, a senior researcher in African studies at Netherlands' Leiden University, wrote that France, under post-war president Charles de Gaulle, imposed a neo-colonial policy from the start. Military interventions became routine in a region France viewed as its "backyard", he said.
That history looms large over France's military operations in West Africa today.
Analysts say Operation Barkhane, which is trying to root out militant insurgency in the Sahel, is widely perceived as yet another attempt to meddle in African affairs, even if local armies have joined in to fight alongside insurgent groups.
Tournons la Page (TLP), a pan-African civil society group set up in 2014 to promote democracy on the continent, is calling for the closure of all foreign military bases.
"France's colonial past, its meddling in our internal affairs and looting of our resources like uranium are making our youths think," said Maikoul Zodi of TLP's Niger branch.
"We don't have win-win contracts with France."
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