On Jan. 23, 2020, Gen. François Lecointre, chief of the defense staff and France’s highest-ranking general, told the National Assembly that the French army knew what it was doing with Operation Barkhane, the French military intervention in the Sahel that began in 2014. This was partly due, he explained, to the fact that the army could draw on the heritage of colonial-era doctrine personified by Gen. Joseph Gallieni and Gen. Hubert Lyautey. These men made their careers conquering and “pacifying” France’s colonial empire in Indochina and Africa during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their ideas were the basis for doctrinal developments in the 1940s and 1950s, when colonial wars evolved into counter-insurgency campaigns and colonial doctrine became counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine. For Lecointre, the association between contemporary French military operations and French colonial practices was a positive one. He hoped to communicate confidence and cultivate the trust of the French public and France’s civilian leaders, assuring them that the French military mission in the Sahel was justified and its objectives attainable.
For some, Lecointre’s remarks had the opposite effect. He confirmed the idea that France was conducting a colonial campaign — that it was approaching Africa through a (neo)colonial lens and not, as the French government claims, merely defending friendly countries from Islamist terrorists. Critics of French interventions in Africa such as Bruno Charbonneau stress the continuities between colonial, neo-colonial, and contemporary policies and practices. Other regional experts like Yvan Guichaoua and Nathaniel Powell are troubled by the repetition of policies and practices that have, in their view, done more to destabilize the region since decolonization in the 1960s. In other words, the problem is not that the French military does not know what it is doing, but rather that France’s track record suggests the country’s savoir faire is doing more harm than good.