France said Friday that it remained committed to a military presence in Mali to help fend off a jihadist insurgency, but would not stay if the country’s volatile political situation became untenable.
Paris is unhappy with a proposal by Mali’s military junta to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections, despite international demands to respect a promise to hold the vote in February.
France has thousands of troops in Mali and neighbouring Sahel countries in west Africa as part of an anti-jihadist force.
“We’re in Mali and we’re staying, but not under any conditions,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference after EU foreign ministers met in Brest, northwestern France.
Paris’s relations with Mali, a former colonial possession, have deteriorated sharpy since a 2020 military takeover.
Noting that Malians took to the streets en masse on Friday after the military junta called for protests against stringent sanctions, Le Drian said the junta had cited security concerns as the reason for lengthening the democratic transition phase.
“If it’s safe enough to demonstrate, surely it is safe enough to vote,” Le Drian quipped.
Western powers have accused Mali of hiring Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell saying on Thursday that “they are arriving in Mali” and denouncing their deployment as “absurd”.
In response the EU had suspended budgetary aid to Mali, but not direct aid to its population, half of which lives in poverty, he said.
Some 900 soldiers are deployed in Mali as part of the Takuba force, made up of European special forces and based on an initiative by France, which is eager to share the burden of looking after Mali’s security with its partners.
The troops are to help Mali’s army acquire the combat skills necessary to become self-reliant, a daunting task given the volatile situation on the ground.
Even after years of a foreign troop presence, jihadists operating in the Sahel between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have continued with deadly incursions against both security forces and civilians.