Planeloads of French citizens are returning home. Anti-French demonstrations are peppered with Russian flags. French military and political interests are once again under attack in the Sahel as another onetime ally is toppled in a coup.
Last month’s military power grab in Niger follows those of Burkina Faso and Mali, all former French colonies, amid mounting anti-French sentiment over the past two years. Not so long ago, their leaders and military collaborated closely with Paris, as part of a five-nation regional G5 Sahel alliance — including Mauritania and Chad — fighting a spreading jihadist insurgency.
Today, France’s military has left Mali and Burkina Faso and the 1,500 troops stationed in Niger face an uncertain future, although Paris says they will remain, at least for now. Citizens of those countries, who once cheered French forces for liberating cities and towns from militants, are now telling them to go home.
“An era is over, that in which France positioned itself as the anti-jihadist policeman of a region five times greater than its territory,” wrote right-wing French newspaper Challenges in an editorial calling for a serious rethink by Paris of its “broken down” Africa strategy.
“It is indispensable to listen to the concerned societies,” it added, “including that which doesn’t please.”
Early Wednesday, the first French evacuees from Niger returned home on two military planes. Another two, also carrying other European and foreign nationals, were to follow.
“I’m sad to leave Niger,” one French expatriate named Charles told reporters as he arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. “I’ll be following the situation closely in the coming days.”
Besides French troops, companies mining uranium needed for France’s nuclear reactors are staying put for now, say officials.
“The departure of French military is absolutely not on the agenda,” army spokesman Pierre Gaudilliere told France-Info radio Wednesday.
Yet attacks against France are mounting. On Sunday, pro-coup demonstrators hurled gasoline bombs over the wall of France’s embassy in Niamey, chanting, “Down with France.” They trampled on the embassy’s plaque and erected Russian and Nigerien flags in its place.
On Monday, Niger’s military junta accused France of plotting a military intervention in the country — an allegation swiftly rebutted by French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.
“It’s wrong,” Colonna told France’s BFM TV channel, denouncing anti-French sentiment and misinformation circulating in the country.
She described the Russian flags and anti-French slogans in Niamey as reflecting “what one could see elsewhere,” and said they mirrored “all the usual ingredients of destabilization of the Russian-African model.”
In Burkina Faso and Mali, too, analysts say Russia has been behind anti-French propaganda, and Russian mercenary group Wagner filled the void left by French forces in Mali.
“The question is this collapse is going very, very fast,” France 24 veteran reporter Cyril Payen told the news channel, referring to the Sahel. “And Niger was the last democratic bastion.”
A big question now, he added, was the future of France’s anti-terrorism operation in the Sahel, following the coup.
“It’s clearly a situation pretty catastrophic for the French, but also for the Americans,” he said, who have more than 1,000 forces stationed in Niger.
France’s waning influence and image stretches far beyond the Sahel, to democracies like Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, where official relations are good, but anti-French views on the streets are common.
Analysts cite a mix of reasons for Paris’ sinking image, from shrinking foreign aid and growing security and economic challenges facing the countries to new players in Africa, including China, Russia, and Turkey.
Disinformation circulating in some mainstream and social media, partly driven by Russia, has helped stoke negative sentiments. That – along with the legacy of France-Afrique — is a pejorative term referring to France’s relationship with its former colonies.
Successive leaders, including current French President Emmanuel Macron, have promised to reboot ties with francophone Africa. Last year, Macron announced the end of France’s anti-jihadist Barkhane operation in the Sahel, although French forces would remain in smaller numbers and alongside other European troops.
Earlier this year, he promised also to downsize France’s military presence elsewhere in Africa, including closing bases and possibly “co-managing” others with African hosts.
But some critics say a bigger reboot is needed.
“Now that the Sahel is almost lost, let’s not commit the same errors in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire,” tweeted former French diplomat and ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud. “Let’s change the shape of our presence completely. Close our bases. Learn discretion.”