Sep 5, 2023, 5:25am EDT

Niger crisis drives wedge between US and France

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The News

The wave of coups d’états sweeping Africa is fueling a rift between the world’s “oldest allies”: France and the U.S.

The toppling in late July of Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, is being met with starkly different responses from Paris and Washington that could have major ramifications for Africa as a whole. French President Emmanuel Macron is openly backing calls by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS to potentially use military force to restore Bazoum and allow France to maintain 1,500 troops in its former colony. The Biden administration, conversely, has dispatched multiple envoys to Niger’s capital of Niamey in recent weeks, including a new ambassador, to engage the junta and seek a diplomatic solution, citing the regional instability military operations could bring.

The White House, unlike France, has refused to call the military intervention in Niger a “coup” and on Friday again said it believed there was still a diplomatic path forward. The administration’s statement came just two days after soldiers took power in another former French colony, Gabon — the eighth coup in Central and West Africa since 2020.

“We’re still pursuing what we believe to be potentially viable diplomatic solutions here to see that democratic institutions are respected in both countries,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Macron, meanwhile, is engaged in a growing war of words with Niger’s mutineers that’s unnerving Washington. Niamey’s junta is seeking to expel both France’s military contingent there and its ambassador, both actions that could draw a French response. “I speak every day to President Bazoum. We support him,” Macron said on Friday. “We do not recognize those who carried out the putsch. The decisions we will take, whatever they may be, will be based upon exchanges with Bazoum.”


The French leader also seemed to belittle Niger and other former French colonies last week during speeches and media appearances. He told a French magazine that Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger all would have been overrun by Islamist militants if Paris didn’t deploy counter-terrorism troops there in recent decades. Without France’s military operations in the Sahel region “there would probably no longer be a Mali … Burkina Faso, and I’m not sure there would still be Niger,” he said.

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Jay’s view

America’s alliance with France traces back to the 1700s and the colonies’ revolt against the British crown. But Washington and Paris often pursue differing positions on key geopolitical and security issues, as recent history shows.

Macron’s government has tussled with the Biden administration on Asia. France was stunned in 2021 when the U.S. upended a French submarine sale to Australia by announcing Washington’s own strategic initiative to jointly build submersibles with Canberra and London as a way to compete with China in the Pacific. Macron later met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2023 and announced that Europe needed to maintain “strategic autonomy” from Washington and not get dragged into any war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.

The U.S. has historically deferred to France in Africa, given Paris’s colonial history and economic and military influence in regions like the Sahel. But the reversal of France’s counter-terrorism operations in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in recent years is changing Washington’s calculations. Military coups in all three countries have driven out, or are driving out, French counter-terrorism forces. And the Biden administration is concerned that China, Russia, or Islamist forces could fill the void. Moscow’s mercenary Wagner Group has publicly cheered on Niger’s putschists.

The anti-French sentiment that’s driven the overthrow of Bazoum is emerging as another humiliating blow to French interests in Africa. But Washington has different interests in the country. The Pentagon has made Niger its key center for counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel. It has two drone bases there from which it targets al Qaeda-linked affiliates. This includes $100 million invested in a facility in the central Nigerien town of Agadez.


“Of course, what we hope for is that we have a peaceful diplomatic solution to this and we don’t have to leave,” the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Gen. James Hacker, told reporters last month. The Pentagon maintains roughly 1,000 soldiers there and in Niamey.

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Room for Disagreement

The coups in Niger and Gabon in recent weeks are fueling concerns in the region of an even wider threat to democratic, or at least non-military, governments. ECOWAS’s hardline position on Niger, including from Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana, stem, in part, from concerns that their leaderships could be next. “This is a huge test for ECOWAS,” Rama Yade, a former senior French official and Africa Center director at the Atlantic Council, told Semafor last month. “Nigeria … needs a win as President Tinubu just assumed presidential office.”

But some Africa analysts said the Biden administration is right to be resisting military force in Niger and should continue to engage the country’s junta through a transition period. They said the roots of the anti-French sentiment in the country stem from the destabilizing legacy of its counter-terrorism operations and economic policies. And they said the Pentagon should be encouraging an approach that prioritizes economic incentives and dialogue to root out the Islamist insurgencies.

“It would also be meaningful to Nigeriens to see a Western power finally acknowledge their deep wish to see a diplomacy-driven approach, not yet more foreign troops rampaging through their villages,” the Africa analyst Hannah Rae Armstrong wrote in Foreign Affairs last week.

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  • France and the EU are concerned about the security of Niger’s vast amounts of uranium ore that are used to power nuclear reactors across Europe. Niger powers 15% of France’s uranium needs and a fifth of the EU’s.
  • Al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked insurgents could exploit the instability in Niger to expand their reach in the Sahel.