France to unveil shift in West Africa anti-extremist fight

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French President Emmanuel Macron will announce Wednesday a strategic shift for its military forces deployed in the Sahel region of Western Africa which are helping several countries contain extremist insurgencies, his office said Tuesday.

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Macron will travel to a naval base at Toulon to officially mark the end of the Barkhane operation, following the pull-out of French forces from Mali earlier this year.

Around 3,000 French solders remain in Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, and while those numbers are not expected to change soon, there will be “a significant adjustment for our bases in Africa,” an official in Macron’s office told AFP.

The goal is “to reduce the exposure and visibility of our military forces in Africa and to focus on cooperation and support... mainly in terms of equipment, training, intelligence and operational partnerships for countries that want it,” the official said.

The French deployment was launched in 2013, when extremist rebels took over much of northern Mali before being turned back.

But the rebels regrouped and soon the region was targeted by other insurgencies that are now looking to push south toward the Gulf of Guinea, experts say.

While Sahel governments have welcomed the training and firepower, in recent years French forces have faced growing hostility from some locals who see them as the ineffective occupying force of a former colonial power.

After Mali’s army seized power in a 2020 coup, its military leadership ordered France to withdraw.

French officials have denounced fake news campaigns, in particular via social media, and noted the growing push by Russia to expand its influence in West Africa, including via the private Russian paramilitary group Wagner.

France’s Irsem strategic research institute, part of its military academy, recently noted a “proliferation of online disinformation, mainly aimed at denigrating the French presence while justifying Russia’s.”

As a result, Macron is unlikely to give a new name to the restructured French deployment, in line with its more discreet presence.

“In terms of perception, Barkhane continues to have a very large presence on social media. We have to end this so we can shift to a different mindset,” the official said.

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