Speaking to Express.co.uk, James Shields, Professor of French politics at Warwick University explained how Operation Barkhane, the French counter-terrorism campaign in West Africa, which President Emmanuel Macron is engaged in to stamp out jihadism in his nation’s former colonies, is proving to be a difficult conflict to navigate and potentially withdraw from as he faces major questions over his country’s role in the region.
Professor Shields explained how the French like to see themselves as a military power that “still has clout on the global stage”.
But The Sahel conflict, which has raged since August 2014, while initially popular, has now raised questions about the issue of Macron’s foreign policy.
Professor Shields said: “There was strong support eight years ago for France’s counter jihadist intervention in The Sahel.
“When it was launched by Macron’s predecessor, Hollande, it had the support of something like three quarters of those polled. So it was a very popular military engagement.”
The French politics expert went further, explaining the view amongst the French public was that The Sahel campaign was a “just cause” and a “cause worth committing a few thousands troops for.”
Since then France has committed about five thousand troops in the Sahel waging the war against terror.
Professor Shields added how when President Macron was elected in 2017 he “continued that commitment” to the region with the unerstanding that there was support for the engagement.
But he stressed that support has now dropped to “below 50 percent” according to recent polls as the conflict becomes a headache for President at the upcoming elections next Spring and becomes an area for the French electorate who are beginning to question what France is still doing in the region.
He stressed “Macron is aware of the dangers of pursing an unpopular military engagement overseas”, especially in light of the deadly US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Professor Shields went further, adding how President Macron says French forces will stay “as long as necessary”.
But the issue the French expert noted was that Macron also says this will “not be a conflict without end” which poses a conundrum for the President after he pushed back withdrawal plans from June 2021 to the beginning of 2022.
As a result Professor Shields warned: “He is caught in the same dilemma that the US led alliance found itself in Afghanistan when and how to pull out while being able to claim mission accomplished.”
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Operation Barkhane has claimed the lives of 42 French military personnel in the battle against Islamic State affiliates in West Africa.
Around 100 British soldiers are also believed to be assisting the French in their campaign which spands across Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
The French military initially intervened in Mali in early 2013 as part of Operation Serval, which successfully regained the northern half of the country from Islamic State affiliates.
But since then the conflict has spiralled out of control as French forces and their allies struggle to keep control over the Jihadist groups as they spread across vast swathes of the Sahara desert.