Macron visits Mali's restive north

Laurence BENHAMOU
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France's President Emmanuel Macron is visiting French troops in Mali on his first official trip outside Europe since taking power at the weekend

New French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday urged faster progress in a Mali peace accord signed in 2015 on his first official visit outside Europe, while reaffirming strong military cooperation with the United States in Africa.

At the end of his first week in office, Macron left Gao, a city in Mali's deeply-troubled north, after lunching with French troops and sitting for talks with Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Macron was keen to display his defence and security credentials after promising to meet with some of the 1,700 French soldiers stationed in Gao at France's largest foreign base, part of the larger "Barkhane" counter-terror force operating across the Sahel region.

The operation comprises around 4,000 soldiers who are deployed in five countries -- Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso -- all of which are menaced by the jihadist threat across porous borders.

Reaffirming a commitment for France's troops to remain "until the day there is no more Islamic terrorism in the region and the full sovereignty of the Sahel is restored, not before", Macron also had warm words for American military cooperation in Africa.

He described an "exemplary" relationship with the United States on counter-terror efforts, adding that he "did not doubt" such cooperation with the Trump administration would be maintained.

The United States has carried out military training in Chad and Mauritania and has increased its special operations presence on the continent.

Macron also made clear his desire for greater action by the Malian government in implementing its 2015 peace deal, which has repeatedly faltered in the face of inaction and ongoing rivalries between the patchwork of armed groups operating in the north who signed the accord.

"My wish is for us to accelerate" the deal's implementation, Macron said at a news conference, describing the so-called Algiers Accord as the top priority to ensure Mali's security.

- 'Antidote' to jihad -

Macron is keen to promote economic development rather than military might, with hopes that improving young Malians' lives will dim the allure of joining jihadist groups.

Investing in infrastructure, education and health, Macron said, all of which have suffered badly from the Malian state's near absence in large swathes of its northern territory, was the "best antidote" to jihad.

To that end, France promised "constant" military, diplomatic and political support with the help of the French Development Agency (AFD), he said.

Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande said in January that France would boost the AFD's budget for Africa by 15 percent over the coming years to 23 billion euros ($25.7 billion).

Macron is travelling with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who as the former defence minister knows Gao well, and his replacement in that job, Sylvie Goulard, as well as AFD chief Remy Rioux.

The French president said he would also attend a meeting of the G5 Sahel countries, the same nations where the Barkhane force has a presence, in the coming weeks.

- New approach? -

Nineteen French soldiers have died serving in Mali since 2013 when Hollande launched an intervention to chase out jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities, according to the latest defence ministry figures.

Jihadists continue to roam the country's north and centre, mounting attacks on civilians and the army, as well as French and UN forces still stationed there.

Macron emphasised the need for closer European cooperation in the fight against jihadists, especially with fellow EU heavyweight Germany.

"My desire in the framework of our military involvement in Africa is to do even more with Europe, more with Germany, but in a pragmatic manner," Macron told journalists.

Germany currently contributes 550 troops to the multi-national UN force in Mali, called MINUSMA, forming the largest European contingent.

The new president discussed the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday during his first visit to a foreign leader since taking power.

Stationed in Mali since July 2013, MINUSMA has just over 12,000 military and police personnel working on what is considered the UN's most dangerous active peacekeeping deployment.

During his campaign, Macron spoke of his desire to re-calibrate France's role on the African continent.

He was criticised at home for describing France's colonial war in Algeria as a "crime against humanity" and "genuinely barbaric".

The comments were well-received in Algeria and other former colonies but condemned by Macron's far-right rival in the presidential vote, Marine Le Pen.

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