Mali on Monday said it was expelling the French ambassador in the light of “hostile” comments, a move likely to ratchet up tensions with its former colonial ruler and ally following a military coup.
A statement read on national television said, “The ambassador of France in Bamako, his excellency Joel Meyer… was notified of the decision of the government asking him to leave the national territory within 72 hours.”
The move raises further questions over France’s continued military support for Mali, a deeply poor country battling a nearly decade-long jihadist campaign.
The French foreign ministry issued a brief statement saying it “takes note” of the announcement and expressed “solidarity with its European partners” — its allies in the anti-jihadist mission.
Relations between the two countries began to fray after the army seized power in Bamako in August 2020, and worsened after the junta staged a second coup in May 2021.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters that Mali’s junta was “illegitimate” and its decisions “irresponsible”.
Defence Minister Florence Parly also accused the country’s rulers of stepping up “provocations” of France.
Monday’s statement in Bamako said remarks had been made that were “hostile and outrageous”, and had been uttered “despite repeated protests” by Mali.
“The Malian government vigorously condemns and rejects these remarks, which are contrary to the development of friendly relations between nations,” it said.
However, it added, the Malian government “reiterates its readiness to maintain dialogue and pursue cooperation with all its international partners, including France, in mutual respect and on the basis of the cardinal principle of non-interference.”
Meyer, the French ambassador, was appointed to Bamako in October 2018.
Coup sparked friction
Rebel officers led a coup in August 2020 that toppled Mali’s elected leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was facing angry protests at failures to stem the jihadists.
The following May, the junta pushed out a civilian-led government appointed to oversee a transition period and named strongman Colonel Assimi Goita as interim president.
By year’s end, France and its European allies were alarmed at the junta’s reported decision to hire mercenaries from the Russian paramilitary group Wagner.
France — which stages presidential elections in April — repeatedly warned that it would be untenable for its forces to fight alongside unaccountable mercenaries.
Russian “advisors” in the Central African Republic have been accused of carrying out abuses of civilians.
Tensions have also risen since the West Africa bloc ECOWAS imposed a trade embargo and
The sanctions followed a junta proposal to stay in power for up to five years before staging
border closures with Mali on January 9, in a move backed by France, the United States and the European Union.
The sanctions followed a junta proposal to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections, despite an earlier commitment to hold a vote by the end of February 2022.
As friction worsened last year, France started scaling back 5,100-man Barkhane Sahel operation and pulling out of some bases in northern Mali.
Its goal is to halve the contingent by the summer of 2023, but central to the plan is a French-led European force called Takuba that would shoulder some of the strain.
Under it, European allies are committing special forces to help train and fight alongside Malian units.
But Takuba has also hit problems with Mali.
Last week, the junta demanded that Denmark withdraw its newly arrived contingent of some 90 soldiers, claiming it had deployed without authorisation — a charge Copenhagen denied.
On Twitter, Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said the ambassador’s expulsion was “unacceptable” and his country “stands in full solidarity with France.”
“Such irresponsible behaviour is not what we expect from Mali, (which will (lose) international credibility,” Kofod warned.
France’s army chief, General Pierre Schill, declined to comment on future French deployments.
“The Sahel question is overwhelmingly political,” he told reporters. “Today, on a daily basis, our units are continuing their partnership with Malian battalions.”