French flag burns in Mali as Islamists overrun frazzled army

By PAULINE BAX, HELENE FOUQUET AND KATARINA HOIJE | Bloomberg | Published: November 27, 2019

The French were hailed as liberators in Mali in the aftermath of a bloody coup that left the land-locked former colony exposed. These days, Malians want them gone.

One of the worst losses of life in France's military in more than three decades -- 13 dead soldiers during an anti-terrorism mission in Mali -- shines a light on the uncomfortable fact that its mission in a former colony is a shambles.

When France intervened in 2013 to stop a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters from moving south toward the capital, its troops were hailed by jubilant crowds. Restaurants and bars even flew the French national flag. Now demonstrators are burning it.

In recent protests, many have carried posters that read: Get out France. We don't want to see you here.

The sense among the population who have endured years of endless conflict boils down to this: France has thousands of troops in Mali, yet violence by al-Qaida and Islamic State militants is growing and spreading across borders. The French troops work alongside the United Nations, which has described its 15,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Mali as its most deadly operation globally.

Salif Keita, one of Mali's best-loved musicians, released a video this month on his Facebook page in which he tells President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to stop "subjecting yourself to little Emmanuel Macron - he's just a kid." Sitting at what appears to be a kitchen table and speaking in the Bambara language, Keita goes on to say France is financing Mali's enemies, the jihadists.

The influence that France still wields in West Africa, 60 years after most countries gained their independence, is a source of suspicion and conspiracy theories.

"This sentiment against the French military presence is not just measurable in Mali, but also in Niger and Burkina Faso," said Christian Bouquet, a French geopolitics research and specialist of Africa at Bordeaux's Montaigne University. "It is not surprising but difficult to address."

Macron, who has his own vision of Europe's place in the world, sees Africa's fight against terrorism as key for the continent's own security. With a foothold in the region, jihadists have a launching pad for attacking across the region, even targeting Westerners.

The French leader has called on European Union partners to do more to help prevent that from happening by supporting weak local armies, but the quagmire France now finds itself in shows how hard it will be to convince them.

Even his own lawmakers are wondering if France shouldn't just pull out. A few hours after the announcement of the deadly helicopter crash, a far-left French lawmaker posed that very question.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe replied that France is "waging a rude fight, a fight against, men, gangs that try to destabilize states and then to destabilize us." Military work "was not enough" to help bring stability to the region, but it remains "indispensable," Philippe said.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said in a news conference shortly after the crash that "It's not the time to question the presence in Mali." But the questions won't go away. The conservative Figaro newspaper described the situation as a "dead end."

France is spending 690 million euros ($761 million) a year on the anti-insurgent operation known as Barkhane that covers the Sahel, according to the latest public figures. The arid band on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert is the size of Europe and stretches through some of Africa's poorest states. Altogether 4,500 French troops are fighting Islamist militants and hunting down their commanders.

Authorities in countries where anti-French criticism is growing stronger should work to counter false information and slander, a French diplomatic source said.

The French have used drones, helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles along with special troops -- the campaign is by far its biggest abroad and with the deaths this week, it's claimed the lives of more than 30 French soldiers.

The advance of the loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg insurgents and Islamist militants gutted Mali's already demoralized army, and UN and EU-funded efforts to rebuild it have been slow. An al-Qaida-linked group formed in 2017 has spread by capitalizing on communal tensions and weak governance, as has the Islamic State in The Greater Sahara.

Mali's army has been struck more than 30 times by militants since May and recorded two of its deadliest attacks in years this month. In one of the most dramatic, hundreds of militants on motorbikes, their faces covered in black wraps, overran dust-caked outposts in the country's northeastern region, killing almost 100 soldiers in two separate incidents.

The havoc has forced 168,515 people to flee their homes in the first half of this year alone, according to the U.N.

"We're exhausted," Defense Minister Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele, an army general, told Parliament this month. "You're right to be scared. Even me, the defense minister, I'm scared. Really, we're in trouble."