to leave or to stay, the dilemma of France and Europeans in the face of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries

A French army soldier, in an alley around Gao, Mali, on December 29, 2021. RAFAEL YAGHOBZADEH FOR “THE WORLD”

Everyone agrees in Paris as in Brussels: the arrival of mercenaries from the private Russian company Wagner illustrates the ” flight forward “ of the junta in power in Mali since the coup d’etat of May 2021. But, after the announcement, on January 9, of very harsh sanctions on the part of the Economic Community of West African States ( ECOWAS) against the regime of Colonel Assimi Goïta, the situation remains extremely vague on the conditions for maintaining French, European and UN forces in a country targeted by jihadists.

The subject was the subject of long discussions, Friday January 14, in Brest, during meetings of the ministers of foreign affairs and defense of the Twenty-Seven. While, before Christmas, Paris regularly let it be known that the postponement of the Malian elections initially scheduled for February and especially the arrival of the Wagner group would “an unacceptable situation”, as the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, had notably declared to France 24, on December 6, everything seems to be done today to erase what appeared to be a red line and to save time.

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The warnings against Bamako and Moscow having not worked, France is now at the forefront of this diplomatic maneuver coupled with a security challenge. Three months before the French electoral deadlines, the exercise is acrobatic, no one hides it within the Ministry of the Armed Forces or at the Quai d’Orsay. But appearances are saved, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, or Mme Parly has always taken care to avoid the slightest statement linking the fate of Operation “Barkhane”, deployed in Mali since 2014, to this change in the geopolitical situation. “We will let you know when the time comes”, had again affirmed the Minister of the Armed Forces to France 24.

According to our information, nothing has been decided on a possible withdrawal. At this stage, the French even prefer, with their European partners, the option of maintaining their commitment. All this, as Mr. Le Drian repeated on Friday, by increasing the pressure on the junta in order to persuade it to accept the holding of elections as soon as possible, and not in five years as it has outlined. A certain number of Malian political figures suspected of “obstructing the transition” should thus be sanctioned by the Europeans.

The situation “is no longer a Franco-Malian affair”

The whole issue today for Paris, whose relations with the junta are execrable, is not to appear too alone in this crisis management. “The situation in Mali and the Sahel is an African and European affair, it is no longer a Franco-Malian affair”, thus assured, on January 12, Mr. Le Drian.

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