After 9 Years of Military Presence, French Troops Exit Mali


Pipa Powers, Contributor

In 2013, French troops entered Mali and have maintained a consistent presence in the nation ever since. The original intent of the operation was to challenge the attempted jihadist movement to control Northern Mali. Northern Mali, which is sparsely populated and far from centralized control, was overtaken by jihadist groups in 2012. The Malian government struggled to reestablish control in the region, leading them to rely on external influence. Initially, Mali had requested the support–with the understanding that assistance would only be necessary for a couple of weeks. After achieving that original goal, French troops have maintained a presence in the country in an effort to support antiterrorism efforts.

Initially, the Malian government was appreciative of French support, but attitudes towards the French have largely shifted. In the current political climate, Malian citizens view French flags to be representative of neocolonialism, the chief complaint of anti-French protests. Citizens, and the Malian government, consider the French military engagement a failure, citing that it led to more violence and division within the West African nation. The French government counters these claims, with Emmanuel Macron standing behind the successes of the French mission. The situation is complex, with individual stances on the issue being primarily dependent on country affiliation. France was successful at achieving what they initially intended to do, and received widespread support for those actions. However, the French decision to maintain presence in the region prompted Malian backlash, ultimately leading to the current exit.

Whether or not the presence was successful, growing tensions between both nations have led to an escalation in apathy toward and eventual dismissal of French troops from Mali. The growing tensions are not a new development. Rather, French power in West Africa has been weakening as a result of nearby coups and Malian government partnerships, such as that with the Wagner Group. In Mali and nearby states Chad and Burkina Faso, coups have largely contributed to weakening of alliances with France in the region, beginning with the coup of the Malian government in 2020. In addition, French Ambassador Jean Yves Le Drian openly referred to Mali’s government as illegitimate, which led to his immediate expulsion from the country. Tensions have also increased as the Malian government has shifted its efforts away from the fight against terrorism and toward protecting the new government. This decision, which accompanied the deployment of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian-linked organization, challenged the French government’s goals in the region. 

Both the Malian and French governments are now working towards a French military exit from Malian borders. The French government cites this decision as the result of growing tensions after the Malian government was overthrown during a 2020 coup, with the military still in power. French President Emmanuel Macron claims that it is impossible for the French to continue fighting against terrorism if the Malian government does not actively support those efforts. Rather, the French government faces continuous hostility and opposition from the current military government. 

The French exit from Mali is largely representative of a broader decline in French diplomatic influence. France was originally a dominant presence in many West African nations, but the region’s inhabitants have begun to push back against French influence. French power is also being crowded out by support from new players in the region, including Russia and China. Much of France’s bureaucratic legitimacy rests on their international influence, something that will diminish largely after exiting Mali. A French retreat is also seen as a major win for the current Malian coup government, given their push for independence from the presence of foreign troops.

The implications of a French exit extend beyond simply the French and Malian governments. The security vacuum that will exist after French troops exit could lead to a greater potential of regional destabilization. As the Malian coup government continues to partner with Wagner Group mercenaries, there is the possibility of future conflict. The Wagner Group has already been implicated in other major regional conflicts, even having contributed to war crimes in Libya. They have also served as a key force in pushing the Central African Republic into the Russian sphere of influence. 

Other implications involve the subsequent  impacts of other Western forces exiting the UN mission in the region. This is largely due to the widespread dependence on French military support in the pursuit of anti-terrorism efforts.  However, French forces are not entirely exiting West Africa. Rather, they will be redeployed into nearby nations in the Sahel region. In these nations, they will be joining other European troops to plan future operations in maintaining regional stability.  


Image Credit: “27th Africa-France Summit, Bamako” (unmodified) by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0