NICE, France/YAOUNDE, Cameroon

France’s future plans in Africa’s Sahel region were the focus of heated debate among lawmakers on Tuesday, with top ministers fielding scathing questions as they tried to defend the government’s strategy.

The French government said last month it will reconsider its plans in the Sahel, where some 5,000 French soldiers have been deployed since 2014 as part of Operation Barkhane, purportedly aimed at eliminating armed groups in the region.

The indication of a change in strategy came amid growing criticism sparked by the deaths of five soldiers in attacks by an al-Qaeda linked group during the winter holiday season.

Officials have said a cut in troop numbers was very likely after significant military successes in 2020.

A decision is expected at the next joint summit of France and G5 Sahel countries in N’Djamena, capital of Chad, this month, according to French officials.

“Knowing whether or not 600 soldiers will leave Barkhane does not fully provide the answer we expect; above all, we want to understand the government’s strategy for the coming period,” said Christian Chambon, head of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces Committee.

Given the “commitment and price” France has paid, he said, the country is entitled to expect progress on the national reconciliation process in Mali.

Senator Pierre Laurent deplored that “the lessons of the wars waged in the name of anti-terrorism have not been learnt.”

His view was supported by Senator Olivier Cigolotti, who noted that “it often turns out to be easier to find funding to wage war than to restore peace.”

Despite the criticism, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly, minister of the armed forces, advocated for French engagement in the Sahel.

Le Drian said it would be unreasonable to “think that what is happening in the Sahel is none of our business” and pointed out that Mali was on the verge of collapse in 2012.

He said the January 2020 meeting of France and G5 Sahel countries was “the summit of the military burst” but the one this year “must be that of a diplomatic leap.”

Parly said rising anti-France sentiments in the Sahel have offered “a real avenue” to the Daesh terror group.

The presence of French troops has always been a divisive topic in the region, with many people opposed to their operations.

Dozens of civilians have been killed over the past six years of Operation Barkhane, and the recent deaths of several civilians in airstrikes by French forces in Mali have further fanned resentment among locals.

“Daesh in the Sahel is severely hampered even if it still retains an important regeneration capacity. […] It should be noted that there have been no more large-scale attacks since January 2020,” she said, stressing the need for continued French presence in the area.

According to Parly, “other nations are ready to engage” with the G5 Sahel group after having “understood that the stability of the Sahel is key for European security.”

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