Paris (CNSNews.com) – A decision by the military junta in Burkina Faso to expel the French ambassador marks a new blow to France’s relationships in the terrorism-plagued Sahel, even as Russian influence in the region deepens.
The military regime, which seized power in the former French colony last September – replacing another unelected military junta – announced on Monday that it wants Paris to recall Ambassador Luc Hallade.
“It’s not the end of the diplomatic relationship, but it’s the interlocutor that we simply ask to change,” the official AIB news agency reported, citing an unnamed regime source. “It is not a question of a break with France but we no longer want to collaborate with this ambassador.”
Hallade has drawn criticism from Burkinabe authorities over public comments about the situation in the country, including a remark during a hearing of a France-West Africa friendship group in the French Senate last year to the effect that Burkina Faso is effectively in a civil war.
The French foreign ministry declined to comment publicly on the expulsion of the ambassador, but spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre did describe the move as “not a usual approach.”
Hallade’s expulsion came two weeks after the regime declared the United Nations’ coordinator of humanitarian operations in Burkina Faso, Barbara Manzi, persona non grata.
Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who seized power in September, is showing a willing to work with other countries, notably Russia.
Last month his prime minister, Apollinaire Joachim Kyelem de Tambela, visited Russia to tighten relations between the two countries. Moscow's foreign ministry said the two countries want to work together to fight Islamist extremism.
France has for more than ten years deployed troops in several Sahel countries, including Burkina Faso, training and working with local forces to counter terrorism. Last August, France withdrew its troops from one of the countries, Mali, months after its ruling junta also expelled the French ambassador.
A contingent of French special forces is still based in Burkina Faso, although since the troops left Mali last August, they may soon also be withdrawn. No date for the move has been given, however.
In both Mali and Burkina Faso, anti-French sentiment has grown as Russia openly expands its influence.
Jonathan Guiffard, a West Africa expert at the French think tank Institut Montaigne, told European media this week that although France after withdrawing troops from Mali had proposed ongoing security cooperation, the regime in Mali “refused, and currently cooperation between France and Mali does not exist.”
The Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group is gradually replacing the French troops in the region.
The company is owned and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to President Vladimir Putin. Putin has denied any links between the Wagner Group and the Kremlin.
Russia is expanding its diplomatic reach in the continent, in a bid to regain the influence it had until the early 1990s and taking advantage of the negative view many Africans hold towards former colonial powers in Europe.
Last October, Putin organized a summit in Sochi attended by more than 40 African leaders. Three months earlier, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia.