Acting in support and not instead of: the French armies had to learn the lessons of their forced exit from Mali in the summer of 2022 and are today testing a discreet partnership in Niger, tailored to the demands of Niamey.
"In Niger and even globally everywhere in Africa, the philosophical position is different from what was done in Mali. Today our aid starts first from the need of the partner", summarizes the commander of the French Forces in the Sahel ( FFS ), General Bruno Baratz.
A change of paradigm necessary after the departure from Mali of the French soldiers of Operation Barkhane, under the pressure of a hostile junta which appealed to the Russian mercenaries of Wagner, although it denies it.
Neighbouring Burkina Faso, also led by putschist soldiers, in January demanded the withdrawal of French special forces from its territory and is in Wagner's sights.
To lessen the flank of criticism against the military presence in Africa of the former colonial power, President Emmanuel Macron has ordered action strictly adhering to the specific demands of the countries concerned and remaining low noise.
An instruction respected to the letter in Niger, which accepts in return 1,500 French soldiers on its soil to increase its armies, while the Islamic State group in the Sahara (EIS) has regained the hair of the beast on the Malo border -Nigerian.
"Niger serves as a laboratory for the French army for its renewed approach" , sums up Michael Shurkin, an American expert specializing in the tricolor military world. "France was waging its own war in parallel with what the Malian armed forces were doing. Today it wants to do things differently".
Staying on the second line, however, requires a "debarkhanization of minds" , slips a French officer, recalling that an entire generation of soldiers tracked down jihadist groups for a decade in the Sahelian sands, in much more autonomous conditions than today.
Engaged in a rise in power of their armed forces (FAN), which should reach 50,000 men in 2025 then 100,000 in 2030, Niger seems satisfied.
"Today the command is Nigerien, master of the terrain and of the needs. We can only congratulate ourselves on this. The French bring us the military training, equipment, intelligence, and air resources that we lack", underlines to AFP the former Nigerien Minister of Defense (2016-2019), Kalla Moutari.
"We must leverage their presence and that of other partners, as the threat is increasingly rooted in central Mali and to the east and spills over into Niger."
While Niger previously served mainly as a transit base for operations in Mali, the French have reinforced their presence there and detached hundreds of men to the south-west of the country, near the Malian border.
The Franco-Nigerian Almahaou operation, in the Tillaberi region, has already produced positive effects, argues Colonel Grégoire Servent, commander of the French projected air base (BAP) in Niamey.
"We have gone from 33% of cultivated land in this sector a year ago to 65% today. This area is considered a priority because it is the breadbasket of the country".
Cooperation works all the better because "Niger has a particularly effective counter-insurgency strategy", which aims to "secure populations and allow the return of the State to areas contested by terrorist groups", adds the general. Baratz.
In Mali, despite undeniable French tactical victories against armed groups, the political power has never managed to reestablish its authority in the semi-desert areas raked by Barkhane. And the national army (FAMa) has remained fragile, despite efforts to toughen it up for years.
From now on, the fields of cooperation extend to the air domain, according to the needs of Niger. "The BAP, at the time of Barkhane, had much less interaction with the Nigeriens. A shift really took place with the withdrawal from Mali", notes the combat partnership assistant, Lieutenant-Colonel Fabien.
French drones and fighter planes take off daily from Niamey to support Nigerien operations on the ground. And a seminar recently brought together French and Nigeriens on the use of their respective drones - American Reaper for the first, Turkish Bayraktar for the others.
"As the Nigerien army increases in power, the objective is to adapt our system downwards", promises the commander of the French forces in the Sahel.