France will pull its soldiers out of Niger dealing a huge blow to French influence and counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel region.
President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on Sunday came two months after a coup in the West African country that ousted its pro-Western president.
The French leader said 1,500 troops would withdraw by the end of the year and that France, the former colonial power in Niger, refused to “be held hostage by the putschists”.
France’s exit, which comes after weeks of pressure from the junta and popular demonstrations, is likely to exacerbate Western concerns over Russia’s expanding influence in Africa. The Russian mercenary force Wagner is already present in Niger’s neighbour Mali.
Mr Macron has refused to recognise the junta as Niger’s legitimate authority but said Paris would coordinate troop withdrawal with the coup leaders.
“We will consult with the putschists because we want things to be orderly,” Macron said in an interview with France’s TF1 and France 2 television stations.
France’s ambassador was also being pulled out and would return to France in the next few hours, Macron added.
He said Niger’s post-coup authorities “no longer wanted to fight against terrorism”.
Niger’s military rulers responded swiftly in a statement read out on national television,
“This Sunday, we celebrate a new step towards the sovereignty of Niger,” said the statement from the military rulers, who seized power by overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.
“This is a historic moment, which speaks to the determination and will of the Nigerien people,” the Niger statement added.
French influence over its former colonies has waned in West Africa in recent years, just as popular vitriol has grown. Its forces have been kicked out of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso since coups in those countries, reducing its role in a region-wide fight against deadly Islamist insurgencies.
Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States, which have used it as a base to fight an Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa’s wider Sahel region.
Niger’s military leaders had told French ambassador Sylvain Itte to leave the country after they overthrew Mr Bazoum in July.
But a 48-hour ultimatum for him to leave, issued in August, passed with him still in place as the French government refused to comply, or to recognise the military regime as legitimate.
Earlier this month, Mr Macron said the ambassador and his staff were “literally being held hostage” in the mission eating military rations with no food deliveries taking place.
In Sunday’s interview, Mr Macron reaffirmed France’s position that Mr Bazoum was being held “hostage” and remained the “sole legitimate authority” in the country.
“He was targeted by this coup d’etat because he was carrying out courageous reforms and because there was a largely ethnic settling of scores and a lot of political cowardice,” he said.
The coup against Mr Bazoum was the third such putsch in the region in as many years, following similar actions in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2021 and 2022 that also forced the pullouts of French troops.
But the Niger coup is particularly bruising for Mr Macron after he sought to make a special ally of Niamey and a hub for France’s presence in the region following the Mali coup. The US also has over 1,000 troops in the country.
Mr Macron regularly speaks by phone to Mr Bazoum, who remains under house arrest in the presidential residence.
The French president has repeatedly spoken of making a historic change to France’s post-colonial imprint in Africa but analysts say Paris is losing influence across the continent, especially in the face of a growing Chinese, Turkish and Russian presence.
Mr Macron said that jihadist attacks were causing “dozens of deaths every day in Mali” after its coup and that now such assaults had resumed in Niger.
“I am very worried about this region,” he said.
“France, sometimes alone, has taken all its responsibilities and I am proud of our military. But we are not responsible for the political life of these countries and we draw all the consequences.”