GAO, MALI – France will continue to shoulder the military burden of fighting Islamist militants in the north and west Africa but Germany and other European countries can do more to help, President Emmanuel Macron said on his first overseas visit on Friday.
Macron's choice of Mali for his first trip as commander-in-chief since his election on 7 May fulfilled a campaign promise to visit French troops fighting Islamist militants.
His visit underlined the importance he places on combating militants in Mali and the broader Sahel region, who he said posed a potential threat to Europe.
"France has been committed at your side from the start and what I have come here to tell you very clearly is that it will continue to be committed in the same way," Macron told Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
He said it was vital to step up the military effort because of signs that Islamist militants were reorganising and regrouping. "We will be uncompromising toward them," he told a news conference in Gao, where some 1,600 French soldiers are based.
"France de facto ensures Europe's security, in Mali and in other theatres of operations. But other countries can do more, in terms of back-up, in terms of development (and) partnerships for equipment ... I want to strengthen those European partnerships, in particular with Germany," he said.
France has been hard hit by Islamist attacks, which have killed more than 230 people on its territory in the past two years.
The Sahel, a politically fragile area whose remote desert spaces stretching from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east host a variety of jihadist groups, is seen as vulnerable after a series of attacks in recent months.
Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who seized northern Mali the year before. It has since deployed some 4,000 soldiers, known as the Barkhane force, across the region to hunt down Islamists.
That operation has paved way for the United Nations to deploy its more than 10,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping force to the West African state.
However, security in Mali has deteriorated recently.
Macron said he had discussed stepping up cooperation in Mali with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday and she had been supportive.
"Germany cannot intervene, considering its doctrine, as quickly and as efficiently as France," Macron said, referring to German sensitivities about sending forces overseas except for peace missions, in part due to memories of Nazi militarism.
But he said Germany could help in other ways.
"Germany is very present in backup operations," he said. "I want to strengthen that partnership and make sure that this German commitment ... can be intensified."
"Germany knows that what is at stake here is also part of Europe's security and our future," he said.
In January, Germany's cabinet approved the deployment of eight helicopters and 350 extra soldiers to Mali as part of the UN peacekeeping mission, bringing total German strength there to around 1,000 soldiers.
However, the UN’s forces have lacked equipment and resources, making a political settlement between Tuaregs and the government in Mali increasingly fragile and paving the way for Islamists and traffickers to exploit a void in the north of the country.