France’s interventions in Mali and the Sahel: A historical institutionalist perspective


France’s interventions in Mali and the wider Sahel appear to mark a new departure in French military policy in terms of the approach to multilateralism adopted, the regionalisation of the response, and the levels of violence deployed. Yet how ‘new’ is this approach, when set against the historical backdrop of French military interventions in Africa? Should it be seen as a modified version – an adaptation – of the new type of multilateral engagement that emerged in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide? Using a historical institutionalist lens, employing the notions of critical junctures, ‘layering’, and ‘drift’, this article briefly sets out the unilateral approach that marked French military policy in Africa prior to 1994 before going on to analyse the multilateral approach and associated path-dependent practices that emerged after the Rwandan genocide. Drawing on elite interviews in Europe, the US and Africa, the article shows that, while France’s engagement in the Sahel is characterised by an ostensibly novel multilateral approach, it does in fact combine new and old norms, ideas and practices.

Read the article in the Journal of Strategic Studies

Author information

Tony Chafer is Professor of African and French Studies at the University of Portsmouth. He is a historian specialising on francophone Africa and French relations with Africa in the late colonial and post-colonial periods. His monograph La fin de l’empire colonial français en Afrique de l’Ouest : Entre utopie et désillusion was published in 2019. His recent articles include ‘France in Mali: towards a new Africa strategy?’ in the International Journal of Francophone Studies (2016) and ‘French African policy in historical perspective’, in T. Young (ed.), Readings in the International Relations of Africa (2016).

Gordon D. Cumming is Professor of Language-Based Area Studies at Cardiff University. A fellow of the Royal Historical Society and alumnus of the Collegium, he has served as Professeur Invité at Sciences-Po Bordeaux and Lyons. An ex-diplomat, his British Academy and Leverhulme-funded research focuses on French and EU security and development policies. His books include: Aid to Africa (2001), French NGOs in the Global Era (2009), and La France. L’Europe et l’Aide (2013).

Roel van der Velde works at Cardiff University as a researcher. He achieved his PhD on French arms trade to South Africa in the early Cold War at University of Portsmouth in 2017 and holds a MsEcon in International Politics from Aberystwyth University.

Updates on Mali and Sahel

UN human rights chief says the underlying problem in Mali is poverty:  Au Sahel, la fin du djihadisme passera aussi par la lutte contre la pauvreté et les inégalités (Bachelet

Meanwhile with the US threatening withdrawal, an article in the New York Times underlines the dilemma facing the French Operation Barkhane in the western Sahel: fighting an unwinnable war but unable to leave. As ICG analyst Hannah Armstrong puts it: “In the same way that French reality TV and pop music is 15 years behind the U.S., French counterterrorism mimics U.S. counterterrorism of 15 years ago. In the Sahel, the Americans have already realized this is a losing battle.”