The crisis between Paris and Niamey testifies to France’s weakening position on the international stage, as Leslie Varenne, Director of the Institut de Veille et d’Étude des Relations internationales et Stratégiques (IVERIS), explains here.
By Leslie Varenne
The whole world is stunned by the confrontation between Paris and Niamey – you only have to watch foreign television to be convinced. Emmanuel Macron’s modus operandi for all domestic and foreign crises is the same: stand firm in the face of adversity, whatever the cost, and gamble that it will pass. In Mali, during his showdown with the Head of State, Assimi Goïta, he used the same tactics that eventually led to the departure of the French army. In Niger, the toolbox is similar and the result will be identical. This method, combined with a total lack of diplomacy, is permanently weakening France on the international stage, particularly within the European Union.
I’m in, I’m out?
The situation is unprecedented in French history. Its ambassador, Sylvain Itté, has been confined to the Chancellery since August 26, when he was declared persona non grata for failing to attend a meeting organized by the military. As a result of the Quai d’Orsay’s refusal to recall him, his personal conditions have deteriorated still further, and neither he nor his family now enjoy diplomatic immunity, a court having ordered his expulsion.
The 1,500 French soldiers based in Niamey have been confined to their base since the coup on July 26, as have the special forces based in Ouallam in the west of the country. The junta denounced the defense agreements with Paris on August 3, giving the French military one month to leave the country. The ultimatum has expired, but the soldiers are still there and so are the demonstrators outside their camps.
How long will this go on, and how will it end?
“We don’t recognize the putschists”.
Niger’s Prime Minister, Lamine Zeine, put an end to the suspense by offering a glimpse of hope for a way out of the crisis. On Monday September 4, he declared that discussions were “underway” to ensure that French forces based in the country would withdraw “rapidly”.
The following day, AFP confirmed this announcement. If negotiations were underway, why keep up the pressure all weekend and keep up the demonstrations in front of the French military base? These disastrous images were shown over and over again on screens around the world. In the press, however, Catherine Colonna and Sébastien Lecornu defended Emmanuel Macron’s position, expressed at the ambassadors’ conference on August 28: “Our policy is simple: we do not recognize the putschists, we support a president who has not resigned, to whose side we remain committed, and we support ECOWAS’s diplomatic and military action when it decides to do so.”
The former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mohamed Bazoum’s government was also part of this media offensive, taking to the airwaves on LCI and France 24. Hassimi Massaoudou declared, “We see the intervention coming, the use of force is inevitable.”
Why make such comments when the project had already been derailed from all sides? For a host of legal, operational and capacity-related reasons, since ECOWAS is incapable of waging this battle.
What’s more, after spearheading the “go to war” movement, the Nigerian President has put both feet on the brake. Contested within his country for his warlike stance, Bola Tinubu, in danger after his recent election, ended up proposing a nine-month transition to the Nigerian military! Without the participation of Abuja, which has the largest army in the region, this intervention was out of the question. As for replacing Mohamed Bazoum by force, as Hassoumi Massaoudou advocates in his interview, what can we say? How can we imagine a deposed President returning to the throne without popular support and with all the defense and security forces united against him? It would be tantamount to governing a country without a people and without an army. In the words of Emmanuel Macron to the ambassadors, “We live among madmen”.
Did you say European solidarity?
Without ECOWAS intervention, France could no longer lend its support, and had no choice but to pack its bags. It held an untenable position to the very limit. The countries of the European Union watched in disgust, amazement and annoyance as France became embroiled in this crisis.
Meeting in Toledo on August 31, EU foreign ministers made no secret of their discontent. Italy’s Antonio Tajani spoke on behalf of many of his counterparts, declaring that a military solution would be a “disaster” likely to trigger a new migratory crisis. So much so, in fact, that the Reuters dispatch reporting on the meeting noted that France “kept a low profile during the meeting.” Hassoumi Massaoudou, who was their guest, declared without blinking on LCI that “the EU is acting as one in support of France and Niger’s democracy”. United yes, but against Paris! And while they have accepted the sanctions, they have diplomatically postponed ECOWAS’s request for financial support for the military intervention.
“In Africa, France has lost everything except its arrogance”.
As a reminder, none of France’s allies has commented on the departure of French troops requested by the ruling military in Niamey. Not one has taken up Paris’s argument that the decision is illegitimate. Only Josep Borrel expressed his solidarity with the expulsion of the French ambassador.
According to one European parliamentarian: “They are all delighted to see France fall into line, to see it normalize, to become a European country like any other, a country that is abandoning its global presence.” In the corridors of parliament there’s a sort of jubilation among some: “In Africa, France has lost everything, except its arrogance!” As the Toledo meeting has already shown, the collapse of French influence will inevitably upset the balance of power within the EU.
Under these conditions, it would not be surprising to see the Germans revive the debate on sharing its place on the Security Council. Berlin has long been agitating the idea that France’s seat as a permanent member should revert to the EU as a whole. But if it loses its special relationship with part of Africa, if it loses its votes at the United Nations, it’s one less reason to maintain its special status on the Security Council, and one more reason, some would say, to turn its seat into a place for the EU.
The Russians or the Americans?
To justify this weakening on the international stage, we hear the same refrain over and over again: “it’s Wagner”, “it’s the Russians”. It’s manipulation, it’s the firepower of Moscow’s communication networks that want to drive France out of Africa”.
Others believe that the Americans are plotting behind the scenes to take over. In both cases, this attitude consists in exonerating themselves from the mistakes they have made and denying Africans the ability to take their destiny into their own hands. This putsch is Nigerian. In this regard, the Grayzone website quotes a South African official and provides an edifying anecdote. Three days before going to Niamey to negotiate with the junta, Victoria Nuland, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, arrived in Pretoria totally distraught. She asked for the authorities’ help in rolling back the coup plotters. “In over 20 years of working with the Americans, I have never seen them so desperate. The United States is reduced to plugging leaks so that the Western camp doesn’t lose too many votes at the United Nations.
China takes the cake
Curiously, no one saw the hand of Beijing, despite its strong presence in Niger, with the Agadem/Cotonou oil pipeline, the Zinder refinery and the Kandadji hydroelectric dam. At a time when the threat of conflict was looming, Defense Minister Salifou Mody was quietly receiving the Chinese ambassador in Niamey. At the same time, the President of Benin, one of the most fervent supporters of military intervention, was meeting Xi Jinping during a four-day state visit to Beijing. He praised win-win partnerships and exempted Chinese nationals from visa requirements. While Paris is indignant, Washington is on the lookout, and both see the eye of Moscow everywhere, China is winning the day.
Such is the world…
It is now a foregone conclusion that France will leave Niger. Emmanuel Macron could have avoided threats, chin-wagging and posturing to get to this point. After Mali and Burkina Faso, the sequence in Niger is even more disastrous. For the army first of all, the images of thousands of demonstrators in front of the French military base will go down in history. Secondly, for the Quai d’Orsay, whose diplomacy has been further weakened by the Sylvain Itté affair, which twisted international law by flouting the Vienna Convention. Other examples include the devastating image of French ambassador Alexis Lamek being received by Gabonese coup leader Oligui Nguema less than five days after his coup. A week earlier, Emmanuel Macron was castigating double standards… France’s weakening does not come from the loss of its zone of influence – it has seen others – but from the way it is losing it.
Images de l'importante manifestation devant la base militaire française aujourd'hui au Niger pour demander le départ des troupes françaises du pays. pic.twitter.com/C3Hc09xI6I
— Anonyme Citoyen (@AnonymeCitoyen) September 2, 2023
Le Niger augmente le prix de l'uranium désormais le Niger peut jouir tranquillement de son uranium et engager de grands projets pour le pays avant la France imposer son prix au Niger 1 kg d'uranium à 4000 Fr. maintenant 1 kg d'uranium au Niger vaut 137 000 Fr. le même prix du 🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/z4w017dWZ4
— Histoires d’Afrique ♤ (@Silboyofficiell) September 2, 2023
Il y a l’arrogance vindicative de façade, et il y a la réalité en coulisses. Isolée par sa violation flagrante du droit international, Paris a entamé les négociations avec les autorités 🇳🇪 à propos du retrait des troupes françaises du Niger. On reste vigilants et mobilisés… pic.twitter.com/ck5LJWxkEU
— Nathalie Yamb (@Nath_Yamb) September 5, 2023