French foreign and defence ministers strongly opposed the agreement between Mali’s junta and the Wagner group, a stepping stone for Russian mercenaries to enter the West African country.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian criticised Mali’s plan to recruit Russian mercenaries, saying such a move was "incompatible" with the French military presence in its former colony.
According to diplomatic and security sources, the Malian ruling junta is close to reaching an agreement with the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group for about 1,000 mercenaries to train the Malian military and provide protection for senior officials.
Le Drian said: "Wagner is a militia which has shown itself in the past in Syria and Central African Republic to have carried out abuses and all sorts of violations that do not correspond with any solution and so it is incompatible with our presence."
"I am saying this so that it is heard," he said.
"If the Malian authorities entered into a contract with Wagner, it would be extremely worrying and contradictory, incoherent with everything that we have done for years and we intend to do to support the countries of the Sahel region," French Defence Minister Florence Parly told a parliamentary commission.
A spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry did not deny the possible agreement, which was firstly reported by Reuters on Monday.
"Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country," the spokesperson told AFP. "We haven't signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone."
The Wagner Group would be reportedly paid about $11 million a month for its services.
Why France worries the arrival of Russian mercenaries
France lashed out at the Malian junta, which took power in May, and started diplomatic negotiations to prevent the deal.
If the deal went ahead, Paris would consider withdrawing its nearly 5,000 troops which deployed to Mali in 2013 to fight against extremist groups in the northern part of the country.
Paris also believes its fight against Al Qaeda and Daesh in the Sahel region of West Africa will be interrupted with the arrival of the Wagner mercenaries as the situation is extremely fragile in the region, compounded by the turmoil in Mali following the coup.
France’s relations with its former colony have deteriorated since a coup in August 2020 toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been angered by backsliding on commitments to power-sharing and democratic rule, as well as decisions to free imprisoned extremists in exchange for hostages.
France suspended military cooperation with Mali last June, and Macron has announced plans to close bases in northern Mali and draw down the presence of French troops in the region.
The arrival of Russian mercenaries in Mali would be a "red line" for Macron, one of the French sources said, adding that Paris could send its troops stationed in the country to neighbouring Niger.
Germany also warned Mali against the reported deal with Wagner.
Putin’s shadow military mercenaries
The Russian mercenary group Wagner is a shadowy military unit of private fighters that has been linked to the Kremlin's wars in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East.
Reports of Wagner's existence emerged at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, which was sparked in 2014 and spurred allegations the Kremlin was backing a separatist insurrection in the east of the country.
The group later reappeared in Syria, where it bolstered the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad and was accused by Russian media of torturing detainees and securing oil assets.
Wagner fighters have since resurfaced in politically volatile African countries like the Central African Republic as military "instructors" and Libya, where they are propping up the rival administration of strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Apart from buttressing official Russian military operations, as in Syria, Wagner is reported to have also played the traditional role of a private security company elsewhere.