Will France withdraw from Mali?

Will France withdraw from Mali?

The internal affairs of Mali have been closely watched by France since the Malian government requested defence from armed groups in the North, leading to the 2013 French intervention. France has since invested large amounts of aid in developing the Malian army and state infrastructures to regain the trust of a large segment of the alienated rural population. Yet, the state-building element of the mission, as has often been the case during the 21st century, seems to not be producing the necessary effects, perhaps – along with the more recent actions of the Malian government – opening the door for a complete French withdrawal.

The Background

Since its independence from France in 1960, Mali has witnessed countless rebellions and insurgencies, especially from the Tuareg population in the North. There have been recurrent episodes of rebellion since the 1990s, and most recently in 2012 when the Tuareg dominated MNLA (National movement for the liberation of Azawad) declared independence from Mali, they were soon joined by Islamists groups such as Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). France intervened in 2013 when President Hollande was asked by the Malian government to protect its survival against the previously mentioned Tuareg uprising, in the north of the country, and jihadists which captured major cities such as Tombouctou and Gao in the centre of the country. The French have since remained active in the region through operation Barkhane, an approximately 5,000 soldier strong operation which aims to prevent the Sahel from turning into a safe-haven for terrorists. They were later joined by the U.N with an official mission (MINUSMA) being deployed in July 2013. Following years of fighting, a ceasefire was signed between the government and the Tuareg rebels in 2015 through the Algiers accords despite jihadists groups continuing their fight against the government under the unified banner of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

Little Trust

One of the country’s longest enduring issues is the lack of trust that exists between state institutions and the local rural populations. The lack of state dispute arbitration often leads the population to seek protection or sometimes even membership in militant groups despite being in fact quite afraid of them. The lack of decent infrastructures in the country and the relative absence of the state allows militant groups to enter this void and provide essential services, which allows them to gain the favour of repressed elements of the population. This is especially true in the central region that saw itself under-represented in the Algiers agreements where schooling rates and electricity distribution are well below national levels.

Jihadists in Mali are aware of this and use the population’s grievances against the state to gain their support, for example through their criticism of the forest service that is widely detested by the Malians as they often unfairly tax or imprison members of the rural population. This is especially true among the pastoralists that are growing weary of the rent extracting behaviour of the state towards them and its general corruption, with people often having to resort to bribing officials to obtain essential services.

More recently, an audit of the Malian defence sector revealed that 137 million dollars had been lost through kickbacks, embezzlement and overcharging. Groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb take advantage of this situation by providing useful services to the population such as the provision of SIM cards or medicine, thereby presenting themselves as the lesser of two evils and embedding themselves within local populations, which allows them to operate more freely from these areas. 

Nontraditional Violence Patterns

Thus, the patterns of violence witnessed in Mali are not sufficiently explained by traditional narratives of Islamist violence but rather by the political, economic, and religious exclusions of various subnational units by the state and their grievances, suggesting that religious motivations are likely second to why citizens tolerate, and sometimes join these violent groups. 

Mali’s history of continuous conflictual relapses are explained by current academic literature that discusses how countries that have experienced war in the past are more likely  to experience it again. The likelihood of relapse strongly drops once principles of good governance with emphasis on strong accountable political institutions, along with power-sharing agreements and measures countering corruption, political exclusion and repression, are implemented.  However, despite the strong aid provisions from the EU, with more than 800 million flowing into the country between 2014 and 2020,  reforms have yet to see the light of day. 


In addition to this, the French government has threatened a complete withdrawal, as the Malian government has explored signing an agreement with Russian mercenary group Wagner, strongly linked to the Kremlin and accused of exactions in Syria and Libya. Russia’s influence in the region has been growing, not only is Putin seeking additional African allies in the UN general assembly, he is also eyeing the country’s mineral resources. For example, the state company Rosatom could be interested in the region’s uranium resources and Noragold, another Russian company, in its gold resources. Moreover, France has recently already announced a partial withdrawal of French troops from the region, a decision strongly linked to the recent coup in May of this year and the military’s lack of commitment to implementing democratizing reforms. This has the potential to facilitate Russia’s entry into the country.


Although the French might be reluctant to lose influence in the region to the Russians, with French public opinion increasingly opposed to Barkhane (51% unfavourable to the intervention, compared to 42% in late 2019) and the upcoming 2022 election–predicted to be an extremely close call–Emmanuel Macron will be looking to bolster his chances of re-election. Given this context, withdrawing from Mali could be a step in that direction.

As mentioned above, the aid that had been flowing to Mali ever since the beginning of the intervention doesn’t seem to have had the intended effect, with corruption still rampant in the Malian state, and the Malian military poorly trained and equipped. Although it is true that a French withdrawal would open a door for Russia, there are two major political factors to consider. First, the millions of euros that France has been pouring into the region to, seemingly, very little effect, and second, the fact that portions of the Malian population seem to welcome the Wagner group in a stand against France which is increasingly perceived as a neo-colonial power. These two aspects may potentially lead Macron to more heavily consider pursuing France’s withdrawal from the region in the coming months. The questions that remain are to whether France will be ready to run the risk of Mali turning into a focal point for terrorist organizations or, alternatively, to lose regional influence to Russia.

Categories: Africa, Security

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