Le Drian’s frenemies with the G5 Sahel: Alliance threatened by hostile public opinion to Operation Barkhane

  • + France steps up its military presence in the Sahel to defeat continuing jihadist threats.
  • + The recent death of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal could be a turning point in the conflict.
  • + Hostile Central African public opinion threatens France and G5 Sahel’s alliance.
Source: Jean-Francois D’arcangues, L’Expres/AFP

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Defence under the Hollande government (2012-2017) and Foreign Minister under the Macron government (2017-today), has been the architect of France’s foreign policy, notably in the African Sahel region.

Why is Le Drian frenemies with the G5 Sahel?

Answer: France’s Operation Barkhane is bogged down in the Sahel, as African public opinion turns against the French military presence.

Le Drian’s romance status with the Sahel G5 started with the 2013 French intervention in Northern Mali, but both actors have become frenemies due to the Sahel’s hostile public opinion to Operation Barkhane. In 2012 and early 2013, Northern Mali was overrun by jihadist groups, notably AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Ansar Dine (created in 2011 by former Touareg soldiers who served in the Lybian army under Ghaddafi).

Unable to stem the tide of the jihadist advance, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta directly asked for French military support through the UN Security Council. With the support of the international community, France intervened in Mali in January 2013. “Operation Serval” was made up of 1700 men, heavy air support (including 16 Rafale and Mirage jets), and had cost France €650 million by the end of 2013. By July 2014, Northern Mali had been re-conquered and the jihadist groups were pushed back into the Sahel desert, bringing an end to Operation Serval. Le Drian’s leadership, widespread international support and success of the intervention strengthened the minister’s standing in the Sahel, while increasing his influence in France on matters of defence and foreign policy. 

However, the reconquest of Mali did not bring an end to the jihadist threat in the Sahel region. Indeed, exploiting the region’s desertic terrain, ethnic divisions, and Tuareg uprisings, jihadist groups continued their attacks not only in Mali but also in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad.

In order to defend themselves from these terrorist groups, the five countries created the G5 Sahel in January 2014.  The G5 Sahel seeks to coordinate the member countries’ military strategies, create a common armed force and collaborate with France to fight the jihadist threat in the region. 

Building upon Operation Serval, at the request of the G5 Sahel and international community, Le Drian initiated “Operation Barkhane” in August 2014. This new counter-terrorism operation expanded France’s military intervention, combating jihadist groups in the greater Sahel region alongside the G5 Sahel’s armies. Le Drian’s efficiency in positioning France as the guarantor of peace in Western and Central Africa has seen France retain its standing as the key foreign power in the region while repelling Russian and Chinese attempts to increase their influence. 

Although Operation Barkhane has successfully kept jihadist groups at bay in the Sahel, acting as a stabilizing force in the region, Central African public opinion has become increasingly hostile to France’s continued military presence in the region. In Mali and Burkina Faso, politicians reported that anti-French sentiment was at an all-time high. The Sahel’s public opinion remains distrustful of the extended French involvement in the region, accusing Le Drian of prolonging Françafrique and only defending French interests in the Sahel.

The G5 Sahel’s presidents have tried to push back against this anti-French sentiment, highlighting the importance of French military support in fighting jihadist and separatist groups in the region. Le Drian has been puzzled by the local population’s hostility, as the Sahel states’ presidents directly requested French aid in fighting the terrorist groups, and French soldiers are dying to safeguard the region’s stability.

Amidst this volatile setting, Le Drian is highly concerned that France is engaged in its own “Afghanistan”: an asymmetric conflict without a clear exit strategy, support of the local population and mounting French losses. The distrust the Sahel’s public opinion holds towards France has turned Le Drian and G5 Sahel’s romance into frenemies, although the recent death of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal could prove decisive in defeating the Sahel’s jihadist menace. 

What does Le Drian want? 

Answer: Stability in the Sahel, increased support from G5 Sahel and African public opinion

The events of the Sahel region directly impact France in terms of security, foreign policy and trade. As ex-Minister of Defense and current Foreign Minister, Le Drian’s paramount priorities are maintaining security within the French borders and French influence abroad. The Sahel is a strategic region for France and Europe, as it’s the link between Sub-Saharan Africa and Maghreb. Central Africa is a key corridor for immigrants, trade within Africa and integral to the stability of Western African nations.

As such, instability in the Sahel region due to powerful jihadist rebel groups creates direct dangers for France (and Europe): notably mass immigration, jihadist infiltration, destabilization of Western African countries (as seen for Mali and Burkina Faso), as well as the breakdown of key economic development initiatives. 

Therefore, stability in the Sahel has very direct repercussions for France, making it imperative for Le Drian to help stabilize the region’s military and political situation. Nevertheless, Operation Barkhane has not enjoyed the support of the local population in recent years due to large disinformation campaigns orchestrated by other powers.

In December 2019, Le Drian questioned the future of French involvement in the Sahel if anti-French sentiment persisted: “Things need to be very clear on our presence (in the Sahel). We do not have any interests in the region, except defending the rule of law and our own security. If our partners cannot clarify the mission they (and their populations) expect us to fulfill, we will have to re-think our military involvement in the region”. 

Nevertheless, Le Drian re-affirmed France’s commitment to securing its southern border, sending 600 more soldiers to Operation Barkhane in 2020 (now totalling 5000 French soldiers) and recognizing that the fight against jihadists in the Sahel would likely be “very lengthy”. On June 6th, 2020, a French attack killed Abdelmalek Droukdal, the emir of AQIM and other rebel groups in the region. His death could prove a fatal blow for the jihadist coalition in the Sahel, but these organizations have often rebounded efficiently from the death of their prominent leaders.

In order not to fall into the trap of a lengthy asymmetric conflict France would have to fight on its own, Le Drian’s strategy revolves around training, arming and funding the G5 Sahel’s armies. To this end, France has secured a €50 million investment from the European Union, but fundraising efforts were hampered by the US’s withdrawal from international governance and subsequent refusal to fund the regional force. France also helps the G5 Sahel’s states jumpstart state-building in areas affected by the conflict, aiming to create better economic and social conditions for the local populations. 

What does the G5 Sahel want?

Answer: Military help, long term stability and defensive self-sustainability

G5 Sahel’s vision for their organization was outlined by Amadou Boubacar Cisse, Niger’s Minister of State for Planning, Regional Development, and Community Development: “It will be implemented in five countries with the aim of providing a range of actions and activities that will help effectively deal with security and development challenges in the Sahel.” Currently, G5 Sahel is still in construction, needing immediate French military assistance to push back the jihadist threat and consolidate the alliance.

As such, the organization aims to combat misinformation regarding the French intervention, in order to reassure its French allies of their countries’ commitment to the success of Operation Barkhane. G5 Sahel also leans on France’s seat at the UN Security Council to secure international support and funding. However, the regional organization’s member states also recognize that a portion of their own public opinion rejects the French presence, viewing it as neo-colonialist. As such, increased cooperation incurred through G5 Sahel aims for member states to be independent of foreign powers (France, China, Russia) in terms of long-term security, state-building and economic development. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Only time will tell

All the actors in this conflict have much to gain and much to lose:

  • + Le Drian: Can increase France’s influence in the region, secure Europe’s southern borders and stabilize the Sahel region OR get caught in an endless asymmetric war with the consequences that entails (think Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan…)
  • + G5 Sahel: Can benefit from French involvement by stabilizing the region, accelerating regional integration and receiving international funding OR collapse under the jihadist threat and hostile public opinion
  • + Sahel jihadist groups: Exploit public resentment towards France, forcing it to cease direct support to G5 Sahel, and taking over the region OR be eradicated by the French-G5 Sahel coalition

And what about you? The outcome of the conflict will determine the future stability of the Maghreb, Central Africa and Western Africa. In turn, the geopolitical situation in Africa will determine the future of France’s involvement in these African regions, potentially upending the balance of power on the continent.

Lastly, the Sahel’s stability will directly impact European security, trade and politics for the decades to come. In light of the major role Africa will play throughout the coming century, it’s key to keep an eye on the development of France’s frenemy status with the G5 Sahel