At present, the French actors involved in WGA are almost exclusively concerned with situations in Africa. However, this has not always been the case. For example, in 2009, a four-member ‘Afpak Unit’ (‘Cellule Afpak’) was created in Paris within the Asia Directorate of what was then called the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. The unit was tasked with overseeing daily coordination among French diplomatic, military and civilian-assistance actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the international ‘3 C’ Conference on improving results in fragile and conflict situations held in Geneva in March 2009, France formally presented this unit as a novel and efficient example of implementing a WGA policy in a context – in this case Afghanistan – in which France did not agree with the coalition’s policies of using provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs) to coordinate military and civilian actions in the field.
However, since 2012 and the presidency of Francois Hollande, France’s geo-strategic priorities have pivoted back from Asia and the Middle East towards Africa, especially due to the surging crises in the Sahel and the Central African Republic (CAR).
During Hollande’s presidential term, inter-departmental meetings were held at the presidency every Thursday to discuss the implementation of the WGA in Africa. These formal meetings (i.e. they had an agenda and minutes were taken) were jointly chaired by the diplomatic cell (Africa section) and the deputy military chief of staff to the president. Joining them were about 25 to 30 specialised higher civil servants (i.e. at the level of a director or ministerial cabinet adviser), including representatives of the parastatal AFD and the military intelligence. The agenda for each weekly meeting included three to four items. These mostly concerned the Sahel, the CAR and other matters requiring urgent attention, but they also touched on more structural matters related to African crises. According to a former presidential aide, the political aim was to keep a tight and closed loop for decision-making. While those attending the meetings would discuss at length issues related to timing and the level of military and civilian engagement, the president alone – as the person formally in charge of foreign policy at the top – took every final decision.
Meanwhile, on a lower and more technical level, one could at the time (and might still be able to) observe in the Ministry of Defence a concentration of the strategic and operational WGA activities related to both civilian-military collaboration and strictly military efforts under the leadership of the general chief of staff (CEMA). This official also has overall responsibility for strategic conceptualisation and testing, but these tasks are managed in practice by the major-general in charge of the ‘Centre interarmées de concepts, de doctrines et d’expérimentations’ (CICDE), a military establishment that has traditionally focused on developing and testing concepts for activities on the national or multinational levels while taking an operational prospective. In fact, this unit played a major role in developing and disseminating the ‘approche intégrée’ and ‘end-state strategies’ to the French civil service and AFD.
On the development-assistance side, one would also notice a similar separation. More general WGA conceptualisation is handled by the Democratic Governance Mission of the MEAE. And more operational-level coordination among the implementation projects run by the AFD is overseen by its Africa Directorate, which itself is supported by the in-house advisory work of the Crises and Conflict Unit (CCC).
A major change occurred at the top level of France’s WGA system when Emmanuel Macron became president in May 2017. According to higher French civil servants in Paris, Macron’s administration took a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to the country’s priorities in Africa than the Hollande administration had, focusing mostly but not exclusively on the Sahel region and the immediate and growing security and immigration threats to France that has emerged since 2013.
As part of the change, the formal weekly WGA meetings on Africa of the Hollande era were replaced with on-the-spot meetings at the Elysée Palace organised by the Africa/Indian Ocean Directorate (DAOI) of the MEAE and attended by a limited but varying number of participants drawn from the administration. The meetings were and continue to be focused on the more than 4,000 French troops deployed to the entire region as parts of Operation Serval and its successor, Operation Barkhane. The missions are under a US mandate and are supported by the ‘G5 Sahel’ (‘G5 S’). This new regional grouping, created in 2016 on Mauritania’s initiative, is made up of forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger, and it has both development and military objectives. The ‘G5 S’ surge and the deteriorating military situation in Mali and Burkina Faso led to new coordination and a more hands-on role for French diplomats under the new president’s strict personal control.
On 4 September 2017, with the president’s blessing, Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian appointed Jean-Marc Châtaigner, a career diplomat who had previously specialised on development and fragile-state issues, to be France’s ambassador/special envoy to the Sahel for a two-year period. Directly under the minister’s supervision, Châtaigner’s main task was to pilot the coordination of French military and civilian action in the region, especially in connection with the ‘G5 S’ and the Sahel Alliance. This alliance of international donors was launched in July 2017 to enhance stability and global development in the region by financing and coordinating projects. Its members include the African Development Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the EU and eight of its member states.
This Sahel ‘special envoy’ system was confirmed in September 2019 when Christophe Bigot, the outgoing ambassador to Senegal, replaced Châtaigner at the end of his mandate. What’s more, at the G7 summit held in Biarritz in August 2019, France announced that the ‘G5 S’ civilian-military cooperation and coordination would be extended to the coastal West African countries of Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
Under a rather complex administrative system, the Sahel special envoy – with the support of a full-time assistant, a junior desk officer from the MEAE’s Africa Directorate – manages the first among a set of two coordination task forces. This first task force is a regrouping of military (Ministry of Defence), development (AFD, Alliance Sahel) and stabilisation (the MEAE’s Crisis and Conflict Unit) actors with social and economic-development objectives. The second task force, controlled at the MEAE’s West Africa Sub-directorate level and not by the special envoy, focuses on Mali and deals with more sensitive politico-military affairs strictly between diplomats and the military.
The two converging task forces meet every three months to review their objectives. Depending on the specific matter under consideration at the time, they may reassign – on a temporary basis and as required – specialised agents from any ministerial department and the AFD and then report the agents’ finding to the upper political level (i.e. the presidency and the cabinet). The task forces are also in charge of jointly implementing the Sahel Survey (‘Revue Sahel’), a roughly 10-page document produced annually on an inter-ministerial basis and then discussed and revised at the higher level of the permanent council of defence and security (CDSN) specifically for Mali that Francois Hollande created in the Elysée Palace after the January 2013 military intervention in Mali.
According to French diplomatic sources in Paris, four main ‘pillars’ are considered by the joint Sahel task forces: politico-military, development, inter-departmental communication and criminal trafficking. The Sahel task forces, outcomes have included joint regional mapping, joint analysis of the 3D activities, and a shared review of the different paces of implementation of diplomatic, military and humanitarian agents as well as longer-term development actors. At the field level, the joint task forces have tried to improve the working environment in the less secure zones for the humanitarian and development actors. In the ‘G5 S’ countries, the actions of the development task force have been placed under the authority of the French heads of diplomatic missions. Exchanges of personnel have also been facilitated. For example, since September 2018, an AFD adviser has been assisting the major-general in charge of Operation Barkhane on development issues.
At the moment, France does not have any WGA arrangements like those for the Sahel either for the CAR or other conflicts in Central Africa or the rest of the world. With the exception of possibly broadening the ‘G5 S’ coordination area in West Africa, the French government will probably not give serious consideration to putting in place a more global WGA policy in the foreseeable future.