France's foreign and military ministers begin an official visit to Niger on Friday, a key partner of Paris in the Sahel, at a time when France is seeking to redefine its military and diplomatic offer in Africa.
Pushed out of Mali by the junta in power since 2020, which called on the services of the sulphurous Russian paramilitary group Wagner, the French army will have completely withdrawn from the country at the end of the summer, after nine years of anti-jihadist struggle.
France is nevertheless continuing its cooperation with neighbouring Niger, where it will maintain more than a thousand men and air capabilities to provide fire support and intelligence to the Nigerien armies as part of a "combat partnership".
"Beyond Mali, the decline in democracy in West Africa is extremely worrying, with successive putsches in Mali twice, in Guinea in September 2021, in Burkina Faso in January this year," but "France will nevertheless continue, despite these events, this withdrawal from Mali, to help the West African armies to fight against terrorist groups," commented the head of French diplomacy Catherine Colonna on Tuesday before the National Assembly.
"We are currently holding consultations with our partners concerned to define with them, according to their requests and needs, the nature of the support we can provide," she explained.
Catherine Colonna and Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu are due to hold talks with their Nigerian counterparts on Friday morning, before meeting President Mohamed Bazoum.
The objective of this joint trip is to "embody the civil-military binomial", and to "show that our approach rests on its two feet", said a French diplomatic source.
Paris and Niamey will sign during this visit a loan of 50 million euros and a grant of 20 million euros for Niger, which is among the priority countries for French development aid (143 million euros in 2021). Over the past ten years, the French Development Agency (AFD) has increased its commitments in Niger tenfold.
The defence component will also be discussed. The two ministers are expected to visit the planned Niamey air base on Friday, which concentrates French military resources in Niger.
"Rethinking our systems
Ms Colonna and Mr Lecornu will also visit the Nigerien military base of Ouallam, north of Niamey.
It is from there that the joint operations of about 300 French soldiers and the Nigerien armed forces (FAN) near the border with Mali, against jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group, are piloted.
In the Sahel, the philosophy of French military interventions has evolved in recent years: soldiers no longer act alone, but only in the second line, in support of local forces and according to their requests.
The French ministers will also visit the village of Simiri near Ouallam, where France is financing a project to combat child malnutrition.
The visit comes as President Emmanuel Macron wants to rethink the former colonial power's strategy in Africa.
"I have asked the ministers and the chief of staff of the armed forces to rethink all our arrangements on the African continent by the autumn," he said on Wednesday.
"It is a strategic necessity because we must have devices less posed and less exposed, and succeed in building in the long term a stronger intimacy with the African armies," he added.
It is a question of "succeeding in thinking of a continuum between our diplomatic offer, our renewed actions for the African partnership, our development actions and our military presence", he stressed.
After its withdrawal from Mali, France will have about 2,300 French troops in the Sahel (Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso). French armies are also present in Senegal, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Djibouti. The French navy is also frequently engaged in the Gulf of Guinea.