Written by Célia Le Noé


On the 17th of February 2022, it was announced that French troops–present in Mali since 2013 for counterterrorism reasons–as well as the European partners involved in training missions, would withdraw from Malian soil (Bensimon, Ricard & Vincent, 2022). This decision followed an escalation of tensions between the junta and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which culminated with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs describing the military junta–ruling Mali since the 18th of August 2020–as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘illegitimate’ (Le Monde Avec AFP, 2022). On the 31st of January 2022, provoked by this statement, the Malian junta summoned the French ambassador to Mali, ordering him to leave the country within seventy-two hours (Le Monde Avec AFP, 2022).

Tensions between the Malian capital Bamako and Paris are not recent, as demonstrated by the heated 2020 Pau summit between French President Emmanuel Macron and the heads of state of the five Sahelian countries – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad (Guichaoua, 2020). These countries, also known as the “G5 Sahel”, were indeed asked to clarify their position regarding the French military intervention in the Sahel, following a growing number of disputed accusations of collaboration between terrorist groups and the French military (Guichaoua, 2020; Capron, 2019). During the meeting, the threat of the withdrawal of French forces from the Sahel was put forward (Guichaoua, 2020), and indeed, the number of French forces was halved in 2021, in the wake of France joining the European Union’s (EU) Takuba task force (Leymarie, 2022).

In light of recent tensions, this article will examine the politico-military state of affairs in Mali and investigate the consequences of foreign intervention in Mali by France and the European Union. It will be argued that, although the French intervention was successful at first in terms of counterterrorism, France and the EU contributed to worsening state fragility in Mali due to a lack of alignment with their Malian partners.

The Malian Crisis: Grounds for Foreign Intervention

In January 2012, the Forces Armées Maliennes were expelled from the northern part of the country by Tuareg rebels and separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad – Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad, MNLA (Charbonneau, 2017). The MNLA, whose members were mostly rebels returning from Libya after Qaddafi’s demise (Okemuo, 2013), was helped by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as by the Movement for the Uniqueness and the Jihad in Western Africa – Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, MUJAO (Charbonneau, 2017). As a reaction to this military defeat, the Malian state allocated scarce weapons and resources for the military to fight Tuareg rebels (Lewis & Diallo, 2012). Officers of the national army deemed it insignificant and thus started a mutiny (Charbonneau, 2017). Therefore, on the 22nd of March 2012, the army seized power in a coup d’état, widely condemned by the international community (Okemuo, 2013). By the summer of 2012, the state of affairs in Mali was as such: the north of the country was controlled by AQIM and MUJAO which had turned on the MNLA and were starting to move towards the south of the country, which was under the authority of the army (Charbonneau, 2017).

It is in this context that Western actors decided to intervene in Mali. As soon as December 2012, the Security Council of the United Nation passed Resolution UNSCR 2085 which authorised the deployment of a military force in Mali (Charbonneau, 2017). Following the resolution, France launched Operation Serval on the 11th of January 2013, which, according to Charbonneau, aimed at destroying the terrorist networks in northern Mali – that is, neutralising at least sixty percent of their forces (Charbonneau, 2017). At the height of the French intervention, 5,100 French soldiers were taking part in Operation Serval, the largest French deployment since the Algerian war (Henke, 2017). On the 1st of August 2014, Operation Serval merged with Operation Épervier to create Operation Barkhane, which had an extended mandate over the five aforementioned Sahel countries (Powell, 2017). Besides, UNSCR 2071 of October 2012 had already called for a reaction from the international community to the Malian crisis, authorising the African Union to intervene militarily and encouraging a European Union action (Okemuo, 2013). Therefore, the European Union became involved in the Malian conflict through two different mechanisms. The first one, created in 2013, is the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), a military training mission; the second one, implemented in 2014, is the European Union Capacity mission (EUCAP), a civilian capacity-building mission (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020).

These interventions pursued different goals. The purpose of the EU’s training and capacity-building missions, for instance, was to provide long-term development of the security and military sectors in order to improve long-term stability in Mali (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). As it will be argued in a later part of the article, the EU’s actions would have been more efficient with a bridging military operation while waiting for the arrival of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) on the field (Okemuo, 2013).

The French intervention, on the other hand, was first meant to be a supporting operation to the United Nations (UN) mission of Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation in Mali (MINUSMA) created by UNSCR 2100 in April 2013 (Charbonneau, 2017). Hence, Operation Serval was intended to restore order in the short term to allow for the deployment of UN troops (Charbonneau, 2017). However, it soon appeared that French intervention was more motivated by a counter-terrorist logic complementary to the UN’s peacekeeping objectives, rather than a support mission to UN forces. Indeed, as noted by the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), quoted by Bruno Charbonneau, UN peacekeeping missions are ill-suited for the pursuit of counterterrorist aims (Charbonneau, 2017). One can therefore identify, as Charbonneau argues, a division of labour between UN peacekeeping and French emphasis on counterterrorism which was used in Mali (Charbonneau, 2017).

The Malian Domestic Stage Post-2012 Interventions: No Peace nor Stability

The French operation Serval stopped the terrorist forces in a matter of days in the city of Konna and pushed them back to the north of the country within a few weeks (Guichaoua, 2020). However, until today, the state of affairs in Mali is one of permanent conflict and military interventions, which contributes to the perpetuation of turmoil in the country (Charbonneau, 2017). More notably, it is to be emphasised that Mali is likely to remain in a state of crisis for as long as the factors leading to the 2012 coup d’état are not resolved. Therefore, the French emphasis on counterterrorism prevents national actors from looking inwards into the state failures that caused the crisis in the first place. Government elites’ corruption and involvement in trafficking networks, as well as political and economic isolation of the north of the country (Charbonneau, 2017), might be considered to be examples of such state failures. The constant emphasis on the terrorist threat thus prevents key domestic actors from re-thinking the state deficiencies at the structural level in order to achieve long-term stability.

Besides, the 2015 Algiers accords excluded negotiations with the jihadists (Guichaoua, 2020). This was due to a refusal by Paris to dialogue with terrorist groups (Guichaoua, 2020), in contradiction with the Malian authorities’ will to include all parties in the negotiations. Consequently, the accords were perceived as an externally imposed peace (Charbonneau, 2017) and thus did not provide any genuine progress towards durable peace. By 2017, the year of expiration of the accords, no provision had been implemented (Charbonneau, 2017).

Little incentives were created for state reform due to the continuous emphasis on the terrorist threat, which overlooks the deeper causes of the 2012 coup. Therefore, a key consequence of foreign intervention in Mali is the backing of a state which lacks the authority and legitimacy to rule over the whole territory. Indeed, as the presence of foreign actors in the north of the country fills in the administrative vacuum due to the lack of legitimacy of southern authorities in this part of the country, there appears to be no incentive for Bamako to put an end to the conflict (Charbonneau, 2017). In that regard, the International Crisis Group, in a 2015 report, had already noted that the focus on security in the conflict fails to account for dissident political voices in northern Mali, and therefore does not address the deeper structural and institutional roots of the Malian crisis (International Crisis Group, 2015). This point is further highlighted by Powell, who contends that foreign interventions in Mali ‘limited the ability of civil society to challenge political and electoral arrangements that ensured the return of the old guard to power’ (Powell, 2017).

All in all, the post-2012 coup foreign interventions in Mali constituted a short-term success in terms of pushing back the terrorist threat. However, with respect to dealing with the root causes of the Malian conflict, intervention actors have been relatively inefficient, directing their efforts at counterterrorism operations, rather than structural state reform.

Serval and Barkhane: From a Welcome Intervention to Anti-French Sentiment

The first factor pushing for military intervention was, according to Paris, the need to counter terrorism after AQIM and the MUJAO seized power in northern Mali. Indeed, from the French point of view, jihadists from these groups represented a threat to European beliefs and values (Guichaoua, 2020). Therefore, counterterrorism motivated the launching of Operation Serval, also the one as Operation Barkhane, which aimed at preventing the establishment of terrorist areas in the Sahel region (Ministère de la Défense, 2022). Indeed, France was worried about a potential collapse of the Malian state, which would lead to a snowball effect in the Sahel region. This would in turn have consequences not only on the terrorist threat in Europe’s neighbouring continent (Powell, 2017), but also on the region’s economic relationships with France (Powell, 2017).

How efficient was the French intervention in tackling this terrorist threat? In practice, even though Operation Serval troops pushed back the terrorist forces in the north of Mali in a matter of weeks, jihadists reorganised themselves in rural areas and started rebuilding their military capacity through attacks on military camps (Guichaoua, 2020). Therefore, in 2020, jihadists were closer to Bamako than they were prior to the French intervention (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020), and 2019 was the deadliest year since 2012, with jihadist groups controlling a wider territory in the Sahel than in 2013 (Guichaoua, 2020). Hence, the French intervention can be considered a partial success only, both in terms of pushing back terrorist forces and bringing peace to Mali.

On another hand, some authors contend that France had a moral reason for intervening in Mali due to its ties with its former colony. While this article joins Okemuo’s argument that France could not be accused of neo-colonialism due to the urgency of the situation in 2012-2013 (Okemuo, 2013), it acknowledges the fact that French authorities felt responsible for security dynamics on the African continent. Indeed, the 2013 intervention was seen in a good eye by the international community (Okemuo, 2013), as the latter acknowledged that France enjoyed a first-mover advantage on the African continent, thanks to the knowledge of the Sahel region accumulated during the colonial period (Guichaoua, 2020).

While the French intervention was welcomed by Malian authorities at first, the fact that the military mission spanned over nine years resulted in growing resentment towards France. Hence, Paris was accused by Bamako of having contributed to an even-greater partition of the country (Le Monde Avec AFP, 2022). This came in a context of popular discontent with the French intervention, which has been growing since 2020 when Malian demonstrators accused France of meddling in domestic affairs (Reza, 2020). Therefore, it could be argued that the French intervention, and most notably its end in February 2022 in the wake of growing tensions between Mali and the EU, reminds us of the thin line between intervention to protect security interests and infringements on national sovereignty.

The Sahel strategy and EU’s Mali mechanisms: discrepancy between promises and consequences

In 2011, the European Union adopted the ‘Sahel strategy,’ which aimed at linking security and development dynamics (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). Therefore, already prior to the 2012 coup, the EU was involved in Mali through development aid (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). However, even then, the funds allocated for development were mainly used for security purposes (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). The Sahel Strategy was completed in 2015 by the Sahel Regional Action Plan 2015-2020, which strengthened its security parameter (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020).

Following the United Nations Security Council’s 2012 resolution, the EU Foreign Affairs Council, therefore, agreed on the establishment of a training mechanism to support the Malian military (Okemuo, 2013). This mechanism was in line with the Sahel Strategy inasmuch as it aimed at providing a rapid response to the escalation of violence in Mali (Okemuo, 2013).

However, the EU intervention, which consisted in training the Malian army in new techniques and the use of new weapons, did not respond to the immediate needs of the Malian crisis. Indeed, the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) had a non-executive mandate, which implied that European officers could not take part in combat (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). This was problematic for two reasons. First, the officers stationed in Mali had, for the most part, acquired experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they could take part in combat: there was therefore a discrepancy between the officers’ experiences and their new roles (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). Second, technical difficulties arose and hindered the productivity of the EUTM: for instance, Malian soldiers were trained to use weaponry provided by the EU, yet these weapons could not be taken on the combat field (Cold-Ravnkilde & Nissen, 2020). Furthermore, the EUTM was criticised for not responding to the escalation of violence in the short term and instead focusing on long-term capacity-building, which was in opposition to the bridging operation that was needed in the immediate aftermath of the coup (Okemuo, 2013).

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, the French intervention and the EU’s training mission in Mali in 2013 had controversial consequences. This led to an escalation of tensions between Bamako and the EU, thereby explaining the recent decision from France and its European partners to withdraw from the Malian conflict. This conflict highlights the importance of the respect for state sovereignty, as well as the security interests that European actors find in the Sahel region. Revisiting the EU’s foreign security policy in Africa through lenses such as post-colonial theory or critical security studies seems essential for the establishment of stable and more equal cooperation: an alignment between the EU’s and African states’ interests is indeed needed in order to build sustainable ties between them.


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