President Emmanuel Macron will press five West African leaders on Monday to denounce anti-French sentiment in their countries over Paris’s handling of an insurgency by Islamist militants, or risk France withdrawing troops from the region.
Macron summoned the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania to the southwestern French town of Pau to discuss the battle against the insurgents in the Sahel, an arid region just below the Sahara desert.
France, the former colonial power, has 4,500 troops in Mali and the wider Sahel, but security has been progressively worsening.
Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Criticised in France for allowing French troops to get bogged down and facing growing hostility in West Africa for failing to restore stability, Macron and the French government are becoming increasingly frustrated.
“In the last few weeks a certain narrative has developed that France’s presence is no longer wanted … and for that we need a clarification,” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told France Info radio on Saturday.
Macron said in December he wanted the West African leaders to clarify whether they want and need “our presence”.
“I can’t have French troops on the ground in the Sahel when there is ambiguity (by authorities) towards anti-French movements and sometimes comments made by politicians and ministers,” he said.
French troops were hailed as heroes in 2013, when their intervention helped prevent an Islamist militant push to the Malian capital Bamako.
But their standing has slipped as the security situation deteriorated. At least 89 local soldiers were killed in a suspected jihadist attack on an army base in Niger this weekend, four security sources said.
The summit is being held in Pau as the town hosts a military base from which several French soldiers were killed in a helicopter collision in Mali in November.
A French presidential official said should identify the common enemy, priority areas and a common modus operandi in the face of growing losses among local troops.
“The option of withdrawal … a reduction in our commitment in the Sahel has been put on the table, but all this will be correlated with very precise milestones: the measurement of military results and the respect of the political commitments made by our Sahelian partners,” the official said.
He said Paris would continue until the summer to assess whether military and political plans were working.
European Union representatives will also join the summit as France seeks more support from allies.