French summit aims to boost West Africa counterterror fight

PAU, FRANCE (AP) — France is preparing its military to better target extremists in a West African region that has seen a surge of deadly violence. But first, French President Emmanuel Macron is asking African heads of state to answer a key question, “Do you want us there?”

As a security summit began yesterday in France with the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, Macron hopes to counter anti-French sentiment that has bubbled up amid frustration over the extremist attacks that killed thousands of people last year alone.

France, which once colonised much of West Africa, has some 4,500 troops in the sprawling Sahel region and has been accused by some residents of failing to stabilise it. Some in Mali, which has struggled for close to a decade with extremism, have protested the French presence.

Macron wants the summit in the French southern city of Pau to help re-legitimise the French operation in the Sahel by sending a strong joint message. A declaration is expected in which France and the African nations vow to fight extremism by military and political means. In recent weeks, Macron has found himself on the defensive. In a visit last month to Ivory Coast, he rejected accusations that France’s involvement in the region is motivated by imperialist or economic purposes.

“I don’t belong to a generation that has known colonialism,” the 42-year-old said.

Macron promised to continue the fight against the extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group that are pushing south from the arid Sahel into more populated areas, worrying the tier of coastal West African countries including Ivory Coast.

But the French leader added: “We need to define much more clearly the military, political and development objectives for the next six, 12 and 18 months.”

A united effort is crucial, he said, and the French need to know their troops are welcome.

An adviser to Macron, speaking anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practice, said France wants its troops to focus on the porous border separating Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso where extremist fighters flow with little challenge.

File photo shows French President Emmanuel Macron walking to the coffins of the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali during a ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides monument in Paris. PHOTO: AP