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France Vows to Keep Helping ‘Very Poor’ Nations in West Africa

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Nicolas de Rivière
At a Sept. 1, 2022 press briefing by Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière of France to the UN, he detailed his country’s agenda as rotating president of the Security Council for September. Besides its regular focus on Afghanistan, the Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, the Council is scheduled to hold three meetings on Ukraine. The ambassador conceded that the Council’s actions are limited in countering the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine because it is a veto holder and a “direct party” to the conflict. Yet the Council, he said, will continue “working as a forum, as a platform, to explain the situation and to urge Russia to change its behavior” on the range of crises devastating Ukraine. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

After ending its nine-year military stay in Mali and promising to halve its military presence in West Africa, France said it remained committed to ensuring good governance in the countries affected by continuing instability in the region. Nicolas de Rivière, France’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said in an interview with PassBlue that Paris would continue to support the “very poor” countries of the Sahel region in West Africa, but that “it takes two to tango.”

French President Emmanuel Macron announced cutting his country’s troop numbers in the region in early July, on the Nigerien leg of his tour to Francophone nations in West and Central Africa.

“In the Sahel region, it’s not just about providing security,” de Rivière told PassBlue in a Zoom call on Aug. 30, referring to the five countries, known as the G5, in West Africa: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. “We need to have a holistic approach to push for development, good governance, elections, especially in Mali, and ensure that these countries get back on track and are in a position to deal with their own problems themselves. I think we, France, will remain very much engaged in this region.”

France first sent its troops into Mali in 2013, at the behest of its government. The troops’ mandate was to stop Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups from taking the Mopti area in central Mali and to help the country reclaim its territory in the north. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and allied jihadist groups had taken over the north for nine months, after it fell to the rebels in 2012.

The jihadists had set their sights on descending south to Mopti, which would have threatened the seat of power in Bamako, the capital. The dire situation forced the then-interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, to call for France’s help as well as others in the international community.

The UN Security Council soon authorized a large peacekeeping mission, Minusma, to protect the civilian population, while the French government launched Opération Serval. Stabilizing Mali and instilling peace have challenged the UN, France and other players in the country since 2013.

Observers note that the presence of these outside parties has not been able to contain the proliferation of militants in what is called the Liptako region, straddling Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. France’s 5,000-strong force also struggled to prevent the Malian military, which it had worked with for about seven years, from seizing power in a coup in August 2020. The deposing of President Boubacar Keïta swayed the balance of influence in the country and ultimately forced the French out. (Keïta died on Jan. 16, 2022.)

“It has become extremely difficult, and even impossible, to fight against terrorism from inside Mali, and so the president decided to stop, to pull out,” de Rivière said, referring to Macron. When the Assimi Goïta-led military government in Mali (which forced a second coup, in May 2021) pushed the French out this year, Niger offered to take in all the French troops and the European Union’s Takuba force, also based in Mali. (French troops, the ambassador said, will regroup in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.) Yet despite the presence of these forces for so many years, terrorism in the region has grown worse than when the French first arrived in March 2013.

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said in a report that he presented this summer to the Security Council, on the state of affairs in West Africa and the portion of Sahel in the region that militants from Burkina Faso and Mali were pushing into coastal territories in Togo and Benin.  

Ashish Pradhan, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on the UN, described France’s decision to reduce its military force in the area as “a belated realization in Paris that as much as they tried in the last eight to 10 years, the approach they took with Opération Barkhane really wasn’t delivering results.” (Barkhane succeeded Serval as a counterterrorism force.) He said the French should have combined its fighting campaign with bringing governance to the myriad unruly spaces in the Sahel, echoing sentiments expressed by de Rivière as France’s policy going forward.

The security vacuum left by France is being filled through a private mercenary group — Wagner — that is said to have direct links to the Kremlin. The UN has once again extended the mandate of Minusma and is determined to see that Col. Goïta holds elections in February 2024.

“What’s funny is that the Russians keep telling us that they recognize and acknowledge the presence of Wagner, but the Malians say that Wagner is not there,” de Rivière said. “A number of these guys are convicts or war criminals. I’m not sure that Mali will get a good result out of that. I hope the situation will change because countries that use mercenaries are certainly not moving in the right direction.” (The government of the Central African Republic, where another UN peacekeeping mission is based, is also relying on the Wagner Group for security help.)

Russia has drawn the ire of France and many other countries in the West not just for its reported role in Mali through the Wagner Group but also for its seizure of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as Russia’s invasion in the country heads into the seventh month. Russian troops took control of the plant, the largest in Europe, in March. It is reportedly being used as a military base, risking a nuclear disaster.

Shelling around the facility that began in August recently caused the plant to disconnect from the Ukrainian national grid for the first time in nearly four decades, raising fears of radiation leaks. (The International Atomic Energy Agency inspected the plant last week and plans to leave two IAEA inspectors onsite indefinitely, but shelling has continued, and on Sept. 3, the agency said the plant “once again lost the connection to its last remaining main external power line, but the facility is continuing to supply electricity to the grid through a reserve line. . . .”)

Yann Hwang, France’s ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said in an Aug. 26 statement, read on behalf of 56 countries and the European Union at the review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, held at the UN in New York City: “We remain profoundly concerned by the serious threat that the seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities and other actions by Russian armed forces pose to the safety and security of these facilities, significantly raising the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endangering the population of Ukraine, neighboring states and the international community.” 

Russia’s veto birthright in the Security Council has significantly compromised the body since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, leaving other UN member states dependent on the General Assembly to reach concrete decisions on the Ukraine war. Yet the Council still meets on the crisis, keeping the workload heavy by focusing on the unfolding catastrophe in the European country. The Council will hold an emergency session on Sept. 6 to discuss the status of the Zaporizhzhia plant, and Director-General Rafael Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to brief about his and his team’s visit to the plant on Sept. 2. 

In April, Liechtenstein pushed through a motion to make the permanent Council members who exercise their veto to defend their use to the General Assembly. So far, de Rivière and Pradhan said the initiative had not been effective.

“More interesting is the initiative by France and Mexico, which is a call to all UN members to support an initiative that restrains permanent members from using the veto in cases of mass atrocities,” de Rivière said, referring to the code of conduct effort launched in 2015. 

The idea defines “mass atrocities” as the four crimes under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. These crimes are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. Not all UN members are state parties to the Rome Statute, which established the court. The United States, another permanent member of the Security Council, signed the treaty but has not ratified it. This gap makes defining “mass atrocities” practically impossible, Pradhan noted.

“Having permanent membership with veto powers being limited to certain actors who were relevant at the time but not so relevant across the world currently, is outdated for sure,” Pradhan said. “A body that better reflects the prevailing balance of power, one that has an equitable representation regularly, not just on a rotating basis, will be great to see.” 

France is also holding two other sessions in the Council on Ukraine: Sept. 7 on “forced displacement,” on the Russian filtration camps in areas that Russia occupys in Ukraine; and Sept. 22, when French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna is expected to lead a ministerial meeting on impunity and justice. De Rivière’s office would not confirm whether President Macron is attending the General Assembly debate this month, although the latest list of world speakers has him slotted to take the rostrum on Sept. 20. 

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Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council. To hear an original analysis with more details on France’s presidency and insights from Ashish Padran of the ICG, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on SoundCloudSpotifyStitcher or other podcast providers. (Excerpts from the podcast are below.)

Ambassador de Rivière spoke to PassBlue on Aug. 30. His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: What is your assessment of the Wagner Group’s presence in Mali? There are approximately 1,000 Wagner mercenaries in Mali. This is the choice of the Malian authorities, who decided to cooperate with mercenaries, even if they deny this. What’s funny is that the Russians keep telling us that they recognize and acknowledge the presence of Wagner, while the Malians say that Wagner is not there. Wagner is there, making money at the expense of Mali. It’s a very different business model; it’s mercenaries. A number of these guys are convicts or war criminals. I’m not sure Mali will get a good result from that. Part of their mandate [Wagner] is probably to protect the military regime. So we hope that this situation will change. It’s for the people of Mali and for the authorities of Mali to decide. But it’s a very worrying trend that we are witnessing in Mali and beyond Mali, because countries that use mercenaries are certainly not moving in the right direction.

PassBlue: Do you think Western sanctions on Russia’s financial system are raising the global cost of living? This war on Ukraine is, of course, a major game-changer. And France, Europe and many countries condemned this aggression and will stand by Ukraine, and we want to help Ukraine. In the European Union, I think there have been six or seven rounds of sanctions. Of course, sanctions have an effect on the ground. But it’s obvious that we need to address the global food security crisis. We supported very strongly the effort by the [UN] secretary-general to find a way, together with Turkey, to make sure that the grains from Ukraine and from Russia can be exported and evacuated from the Black Sea. We need to strike the right balance between keeping intense pressure on Russia to stop this aggression and making sure that our policies do not impact the global South. I think there wouldn’t be a food crisis if Russia did not decide to start the war against Ukraine.

PassBlue: In opposing Russia’s war on Ukraine, what lessons have you learned about the influence of the veto power in the Security Council? (The veto holders are Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.) Whether we like it or not, the veto is a reality. It is Article 27 of the UN Charter. It was established in 1945. In those days, it was the condition to move from unanimous decision-making to majority decision-making. As you may remember, the League of Nations was working with the rule of unanimity, meaning that it could not decide anything. The Security Council works with the majority, nine out of 15 [members]; it was seven out of 11 in the beginning. That creates the possibility of taking more decisions and more action, but it has been counterbalanced by the veto right that the permanent members can use. We are just confronted with the situation in Ukraine. One P5 member is a direct party to the conflict. It makes things impossible in the Council to take action, because of the Russian veto. So we are confronted with this reality, and I don’t think it will change. We were able to use the General Assembly to [approve resolutions] on Ukraine. We will continue to discuss the crisis in Ukraine in the Council, whether it’s aggression in the war, the illegal nature of this action, the violation of international humanitarian law, refugees, displaced persons, impunity and nuclear safety. We will continue to have the Council working as a forum, as a platform, to explain the situation and to urge Russia to change its behavior on these different issues.

France’s ambassador to the UN: Nicolas de Rivière, since 2019
Languages: French, English
Education: LL.B., University of Paris (1985); diploma, École Nationale d’Administration (ENA, or National School of Administration)

His story, briefly: De Rivière marks his 59th birthday during his presidency of the Security Council, on Sept. 26. A lawyer turned diplomat, he was born in 1963 in Paris. He attended the University of Paris, graduating in 1985. In 1992, de Rivière passed his exams at ENA, the highly selective academy that provides an entrée to the upper echelon in the French private sector or civil service. Before his appointment as permanent representative of France to the UN, by President Emmanuel Macron in July 2019, the ambassador was director-general of Political and Security Affairs at the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs from 2014 to 2019. Previously, he worked in the UN/International Organizations section of the ministry from 2011-2014. He was also deputy permanent representative, from 2009-2010, at the French mission to the UN (having been based at the mission since 2005). From 2002-2005, he served consecutively as an economic counselor on Asian and American (and North American) affairs to two foreign ministers: Dominique de Villepin and Michel Barnier. De Rivière took a one-year break from the foreign affairs ministry (2001-2002) to become vice president of the now-defunct Paris-based aerospace company, EADS-Astrium. Early in his diplomatic career, he was posted to the French mission in The Hague as first secretary. In 1997, he was asked by his government to hold a similar position with the French embassy in Washington.

One of his greatest career accomplishments, he says, was acting as France’s negotiator on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran deal, which the United States withdrew from in 2018 under the Trump administration. President Biden restarted talks with Iran to rejoin the deal, but no final arrangement has emerged yet.

“It was a fascinating negotiation,” de Rivière said in an interview with PassBlue in 2019. “It lasted basically 13 years or 20 years; I did the very end, the last two years. It was really a strategic negotiation; it was an issue of paramount importance; it remains an issue of paramount importance. We achieved a pretty good result in 2015, and the good thing is that this agreement was implemented and worked.”

Country Profile

Head of State: Emmanuel Macron (President)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Catherine Colonna
Type of Government: Presidential constitutional republic
Year France Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the five permanent members (with Britain, China, Russia, and the US)
Population: 67 million
Carbon emissions: 4.5 metric tons per capita (2019); by comparison, US, 14.7 


We welcome your comments on this article.  What do you think of the Security Council's reaction to Russia's war on Ukraine?

Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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France Vows to Keep Helping ‘Very Poor’ Nations in West Africa
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