The latest coup in Mali and the recent killing by rebels of Chadian strongman Idriss Déby starkly illustrate the challenges facing France’s counterterrorism operations in Africa.
In February 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron pledged to extend his country’s 5,000-strong Operation Barkhane in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. He declared that Barkhane’s primary goal was to help states in the Sahel region “decapitate” insurgent groups that France has persistently portrayed as terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Yet the operation, launched in 2014, has relatively little to show for its efforts. It also comes with a significant price tag for France, close to €1 billion in 2020. This economic burden has become hard to justify, especially amid the economic pressure from the COVID-19 crisis.
The French public increasingly doubts that armed insurgencies in the Sahel are a major security threat to France. Domestic support for Operation Barkhane dropped below 50% for the first time earlier this year. Yet French leaders continue to view their country as an essential security provider in Africa.
French policymakers understand that sharing the burden of military operations with global partners can help boost flagging support at home. At the same time, foreign governments hesitate to contribute substantial resources to France’s military efforts in Africa. This includes France’s principal NATO allies, such as the US, UK and Germany. People in these countries often see French operations as self-serving endeavours to defend France’s regional influence and great power status.
Swaying public support
Research shows that foreign public opinion has a considerable effect on countries’ willingness to contribute troops and resources to multinational military coalitions.
Seeking to boost foreign public support and facilitate multinational coalition-building, French leaders have sought to portray their interventions in Africa as part of a “global war on terror”. But people in potential troop-contributing countries may suspect that leaders who advocate intervention are inflating the security threats. They thus remain hesitant to contribute.
In a recently published study we investigate whether, and if so to what extent, endorsements from the United Nations or the African Union (AU) increase foreign public support for contributing to French-led military operations. We hypothesised that UN or AU endorsements might offer an impartial “second opinion” to sceptical foreign publics that political instability in the Sahel does indeed threaten global security, thus justifying military intervention.
To test our hypothesis, we conducted nationally representative public opinion surveys in the US, Great Britain, and Germany. The surveys were fielded online by the polling company YouGov in August 2018.
Each survey taker read a vignette that began with the introduction, “Imagine that France is planning a military intervention in one of its former colonies in West Africa”. Then, the vignette described France’s intervention goal as helping the African country’s government combat Islamist terrorists.
Our surveys contained an embedded experiment. That is, we randomly assigned information to our respondents about whether the UN or the AU endorsed France’s intervention. Participants were then asked if they supported their government contributing to France’s intervention. This could be by providing combat troops, financial and logistical assistance, or advice and training for local government forces.
Our surveys presented realistic scenarios as the US, UK and Germany have partnered with France in Africa over the last two decades. The US has contributed intelligence, aerial refuelling and logistics to Operation Barkhane, worth about $45 million a year. The UK has deployed about 100 troops in support of French missions since 2018. It recently increased this to 300. It has also offered transport, reconnaissance and logistical assistance. Germany has contributed 1,400 troops to EU training and UN peacekeeping missions in Mali, in support of French efforts.
What we found
We found that approval by the UN or AU (or both) increased US, UK and German public support for contributing to French military operations by about 5 to 7 percentage points. This is significant, given that in all three countries, baseline public support was around or slightly below 50% for non-combat contributions. It was substantially lower for sending combat troops.
The bump in public support from multilateral approval is thus likely to be politically valuable to French leaders intent on building multinational coalitions. This finding is particularly relevant because of our study’s focus on counterterrorism operations. Previous scholarship had suggested that the public strongly supports such operations, regardless of multilateral approval. We found that this is not necessarily the case.
In short, multilateral approval does make a difference to public support, even in counterterrorism cases. It helps reassure citizens that the threat from terrorism is real and warrants military intervention.
French leaders appear to understand that multilateral approval helps build coalitions and share burdens. Since the mid-1990s, they have sought to legitimise their African interventions by securing approval from the UN and regional institutions. Our study confirms a strong causal link between such multilateral approval and the willingness of foreign publics to contribute to French-led operations.