French Soldiers in the Sahel: A Barely Repressed Colonial Unconscious

They’ve “done their time” in Africa. Or better still they’ve made war in Africa. In the Sahelo-Saharan strip, known in French army jargon as the “BSS”. A war they describe in their own words, the language of soldiers brought up on the “exploits” of colonial conquest and indoctrinated in war colleges, clearly enthusiastic about their mission, exalted by what they perceive as an extraordinary adventure, seen through a prism at once bellicose and paternalist which reveals a great deal about the French army.

French soldiers in Timbuktu, 27 April 2017

Though not yet terribly abundant, the collection of eyewitness accounts published by officers having taken part in the French war in the Sahel grows larger every year. The most recent is a book for children. Conceived by two officers who wish to remain anonymous (lieutenants Y and Z, the former for the text, the latter for the illustrations), Les aventures de Bonhomme en Afrique (The Adventures of Little Man in Africa), recounts the day-to-day existence of French soldiers in the Mali desert—the difficulties of finding water, the tasteless food, the makeshift campsites—without ever going into the details of the operations or dealing with the core of the subject. All we ever know is that it is a “strange journey” and that their enemies are “evildoers”. The French soldiers, drawn to resemble various animals, are there to “help remote villages defend themselves.”

There is nothing to be learned from this book meant for young children and especially for the sons and daughters of soldiers who must cope repeatedly with their fathers’ departure for a mission1, other than the inevitable generalisations perpetuating the vision of a continent frozen in time, everywhere identical (“under the harsh sun of Africa”) and mostly an uninhabited wilderness.

The publisher’s identity is far from insignificant, for it takes us to the heart of a milieu which has produced countless French officers and non-com. Its website informs us that Pierre Téqui is the name of a “Catholic publishing house founded in 1868” by a Marianist monk. The idea at the time was to produce and promote “books which were doctrinally beyond reproach, morally healthy and interesting as literature”. Its mission was to “defend and promote the family”, a mission which it claims to pursue to this very day. According to its present manager, François Lemaire, its task is “less to inform than to educate”.

Reconquering Northern Mali

The other volumes on this embryonic war-book shelf are essays and thus make more interesting reading for anyone trying to understand how the army works, its ideological mainsprings and the way it perceives the African continent. The first two were published in 2015, i.e., some two years after Operation Serval was launched (in January 2013).

They are eyewitness accounts by two officers who played major roles in “reconquering” the North. Opération Serval, notes de guerre, is a field diary kept by General Bernard Barrera who was in command of the operation.2 “It was he who won, on the battlefield, in Northern Mali, one of the hardest battles that the French army has had to fight since the end of the Algerian war”, as General Henri Bentégeat informs the reader in his preface.

Libérez Tombouctou, Journal de guerre au Mali, published around the same time, was written by Lieutenant Frédéric Gout, sent to Mali at the very beginning of Operation Serval in charge of the 5th regiment of Combat Helicopters (RHP) based in Pau. Entre mes hommes et mes chefs, Journal d’un lieutenant au Mali, was published in 2017. This is another diary, written by Sébastien Tencheni, a young junior officer who fought in Mali in 2014 when Operation Serval became Operation Barkhane and was extended to cover four other countries in the region: Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. “Written like a marching journal, day after day, in the heat of the Mali Desert”. It consists of a series of “first impressions” but also of thoughts and opinions which the author admits may shock the reader but for which he assumes full responsibility.

These publications no doubt fascinated readers with a fanatical interest in military operations. To some extent they do enable the reader to understand military realities in an environment which is very complex—not only in terms of the population but also the climate and the topology and hence an especially delicate operation—but also to glimpse the difficulties which a commanding officer must face in the heat of the action. They also provide the critical reader with precious insights into the ways these officers think, and their perception of a theatre of operations utterly foreign to them and the whys and wherefore of which are beyond their grasp.

“The blessed time of the colonies?”

One thing is immediately obvious on reading these three books: though they may be long gone, “the blessed times of the colonies” remain firmly rooted in these soldiers’ memory. Barrera, who attended Saint-Cyr military academy (Monsabert class, 1982–1985), “School of Ideals, Service and Tradition”, reminds readers that “military men set great store by the history of their units and the example set by their Elders”, and “derive from these references their pride and singularity.” Now in the French army, many of these references go back to the era of colonial conquest.

Barrera tells of how, while French troops were moving towards Timbuktu in January 2013, he was reminded of History with a capital H while studying a map of Mali:

Reading those place names brings to mind the route taken by the French expeditionary forces in 1894, from Bamako to Timbuktu in the days of French Sudan, military history in the service of our operation! Lere, Niafounke, Goundam, the exhausting trek accomplished by Lieutenant-Colonel Joffre, future victor of the battle of the Marne, repeatedly attacked by unsubdued Tuaregs, come to raid the Black tribes settled on the Niger River. Reading the name of Niafounké on the map, I remembered my grandfather, once a colonial officer, in his big Marseilles villa, telling me tales of those long-ago expeditions.

Niafounke, which was “liberated 109 years after its capture, on 20 January 1894 by Joffre’s tirailleurs at the cost of 100 dead rebels”.

And the author continues:

I studied my map: Niafounke, Goundam and, 35 kilometres further on, our objective, the same as Joffre’s […]I had a thought for Colonel Bonnier and his general staff: 13 Frenchmen, 63 tirailleurs killed on 25 January 1894 in Tacoubao.

Once Timbuktu cleared of its jihadists, Barrera sets out to follow in the footsteps of another of his idols, René Caillé. With the situation seemingly under control, he goes across the city to visit Caillé’s home, “the first Westerner to enter the town on 20 April 1828”. He had promised himself to make this visit reading L’esclave de Dieu, by Roger Frison-Roche which recounts Caillé’s adventures.

Further north, he finds the landscapes he dreamt of as a boy:

The Hoggar mountains of Algeria, the Adrars and Ifoghas of Mali and the Aïr of Niger filled my imagination throughout my youth, when I read stories about the méharistes (camel corps).

He almost regrets “being born too late to have known the great Sahara campaigns”. But which ones exactly? Some of these left bitter memories among these peoples of Africa whom he claims to be proud of having liberated from their jihadi oppressors. One of the most famous, and one of the bloodiest as well, was known as the Voulet-Chanoine mission, after the names of the two captains sent to conquer, in 1899, what later became Chad, and which caused the deaths of hundreds of men and women as well as the destruction of several villages, because their inhabitants refused to feed the troops.

“A certain idea of European civilisation”

When he arrives at Arawan Fort in the middle of the desert, Barrera sings the praises of “those men [who] must have had a powerful inner life, a deep—set vocation, to spend months, whole years among these dunes outside of time”. And he concludes with this ode to colonisation:

The action of the State was a long-term affair. The school-teachers, the engineers, the technicians, the administrators arrived in the wake of the army and brought with them a certain idea of European civilisation […] History is never far away in Africa. Even though these peoples have quite legitimately gained their freedom, they keep in mind the markers and memories of an authority, too often vanished, and which was synonymous with security.

Frédéric Gout, (a graduate of Saint-Cyr like Barrera) gives a far less impressionistic account, confining himself for the most part to the details of the operation. But he too indulges in a smattering of nostalgia when he finds himself at Gossi. “I have the impression I’m reliving those adventures of another era I used to read about,” he writes.

However, it is in the account given by Sébastien Tencheni that colonial nostalgia, so common among professional military men, becomes immediately apparent at every page. This young officer was trained at the Ecole militaire interarmes and his class was named Bigeard (2010), after a general who was one of the main actors in the Indo-Chinese and Algerian wars, a man for whom “torture was a necessary evil” 3 From the very outset, after having extolled the legend of Emperor Napoleon, and before writing that the French people in his eyes “are the bravest and most extraordinary of peoples”, he warns us: “If the reader is shocked by certain reflections or opinions, he should know that these were actually the thoughts that came to me at the time.”

And what thoughts! Africa, “that colonial dream of the brand new Republic,” that “splendid theatre” which he finds “so much more attractive than the cold Balkans,” this land “of all possible dangers” but also “of all possible fantasies” and of “the former colonial glories and the glorious French past”, upon which the Republic, in his view, bestowed “the benefits of civilisation”, delivering it “from the oppression of the Arab slave traders”. Ah! the magic of Africa, “with its currency dating back to colonial times”, its marvellous landscapes, its peoples so naive and so generous (“In these countries, it doesn’t take much to make people happy”).

The modern Du Guesclin

Like Gout and Barrera, he too during his mission feels he is reliving the past. Because, in Africa “You live in another time”. “Is this 2014 or 1350?” he wonders. “Are we the modern Du Guesclin4, come to Mali to drive away the bands of marauders oppressing the people of the countryside and bringing peace?” For him the answer is self-evident: “Belle France” has a role to play in pacifying Mali, as it did over a century ago. “We are a strong country, powerful and respected: we must impose a guardianship for the time it takes to settle the problems (…) and then we can go away while still keeping a ‘paternal’ watch on things.” As if we were back in 1890. But let us make no mistake about it: Tencheni is a young man of his time. “We are not driving out the hateful English”, he points out, “but Allah’s madmen”. This time, France, “a great nation with a generous heart [flies] to the rescue of a people oppressed by Islamic barbarism”. Well, that takes a load off our minds!

Besides such outpourings of rancid nostalgia, these French officers sometimes display a gross ignorance of the countries where they are fighting and the people they are convinced they are helping or saving, and the enemies they claim to be combatting. For them, it is self-evident: on the one side are the “bad guys” and on the other the “good guys.” This Manichaean vision, advocated in particular by the far-right historian Bernard Lugan, tireless apologist for the South African regime of Apartheid, much admired by our officers, does not allow for nuances.

First, the “bad guys”: their enemies. “Terrorists” but also evil traffickers, “desert smugglers” (Barrera), “highway robbers” (Gout). These military men rehash ad nauseam the legend of the narco-terrorist allegedly using Islam to further his trafficking and whose only god is money. Yet most of the specialists of the region have put paid to this rhetoric long ago. “We absolutely must not confuse the criminal actors with the jihadi actors. it is a serious mistake” is how the issue was summed up recently by Guillaume Soto-Mayor in an interview for Mondafrique:

That notion that the armed jihadi groups are highway robbers wearing the mantle of religion, whose main objective is pecuniary, is absurd and unrealistic. […] That narco-jihadi label is a matter of wilful ignorance. It often serves political ends. Just because an infinitesimal share of the jihadis’ revenue comes from trafficking, just because some traffickers give them money or because the armed jihadi and other armed groups co-operate on a given territory, doesn’t mean that the jihadi have become drug smugglers.

Barbarians without a project

Any excuse will do to deny “the bad guys” any political ambition or even deprive them of any rational capacity. Even Barrera, a man of knowledge and restraint, fails to avoid this caricature when he claims:

Sahalien jihadi advocate a return to origins, yet they have no scruples about using Toyotas, computers and satellite phones. To extend their power and impose their traffics on whole regions, they destroy but don’t construct, impose a return to the Middle Ages on powerless populations who submit to the dictatorship of a small minority.

And he concludes with this curious comparison: “Communism, our previous enemy, had a certain vision of society, it had a project. These new barbarians have none.”

As for Gout, he seems to have a very precise idea of the nature of Islam. For him, the Sahalien jihadi “respect nothing and nobody and especially not Islam.” And be it known that they take drugs too.5 For Tencheni, they are simply “uneducated”.

In contrast with these “bad guys” we have the so-called “good guys “. The French soldiers, of course. But also the Malians, a “pacific people who mostly live in peace” as Gout thinks he knows. Malians, like all Africans, are naive, friendly, good-natured, smiling. And “easily influenced” (Tencheni).

Nothing in common with those shady jihadi. Yet a great deal of field research has shown that the bulk of the troops that make up the various active katibas in the Sahel today were recruited locally. While it is true that Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) originated in Algeria and that in its early phase, its leaders came from North Africa, they have long since been replaced by men from Mali, Burkina or Niger. Iyad A.G. Ghaly, leader of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM, or JNIM) which took over from AQMI in the region, is a Malian Touareg. Hamadoun Kufa, head of the Macina katiba, one of the most active in Mali, is a Malian Fulani. While the leader of Ansaroul Islam, active in northern Burkina, is a Burkinese Fulani. But this reality has no place in the French officers’ narrative. Which doesn’t prevent Tencheni from writing that a military man “owes it to himself to keep his mind on the alert and have a broader vision than the simplistic version propagated by the media and the National Education system.”

A cartoonish vision of Africa

We needn’t look far to find the ideological references of this young officer, who has “the impression that we are the last ramparts […], the last survivors of a certain idea of France”. There is little doubt but what this devotee of Aymeric Chauprade, former advisor to Marine Le Pen and whom he cites as an authority on geopolitical issues, has also devoured the writings of Bernard Lugan. In the eyes of this historian, reviled by most of his colleagues, everything in Africa is simple enough, everything is determined by ethnic grouping, everything is frozen in time. And this is the message delivered by our military authors.” Time is at a standstill in this city (Timbuktu)”, Barrera writes. Discovering the “splendid narrow streets” of Timbuktu, Gout thinks he knows that “nothing has changed for centuries”. Oh, and then after all, as Barrera puts it, “This is Africa, here nothing is rational.”

This grotesque vision speaks volumes about the way the military institution perceives the African continent, its main theatre of operations today. Yet it does not rule out the occasional flash of clear mindedness. While Barrera refers quite rightly to the success of Operation Serval (a victory “of the eternal French soldier, courageous and generous” he insists on pointing out), he admits as early as 2015 that these tactical conquests “will have meaning only if they are followed by a new diplomatic deal” and reminds us of the too-often forgotten obvious: “Our weapons have done their bit, but the solution can only be political.”

1According to a report from the French Armed Forces Ministry, the 2014 census counted 283,265 children brought up by couples which include at least one member of the armed forces” Among these children, 23% are under 3 and 61% are over 6. More than 88,000 are in the nursery or elementary school.

2On 20 October, Barrerra was to make his farewell to arms at the Hôtel des Invalides. Like many officers, he quickly found a place in civilian life. From November first he will be employed by Thales, the arms manufacturer, as official advisor for land defences.

3The class hymn is dedicated to him: “A soldier who ennobles our history (…) let our actions ever follow in his footsteps.”

4TRANSLATOR"S NOTE: Bertrand Du Guesclin (1315 or 1320–1380) commanded the Royal Army during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). His relevance here is that he successfully fought the English occupation.

5It is true that in the Sahel, jihadi fighters sometimes take drugs before going into battle (especially in the region of Chad Lake). But this is far from being a general practice.