New French President Emmanuel Macron today urged faster progress in a Mali peace accord signed in 2015 on his first official visit outside Europe, while reaffirming strong military cooperation with the United States in Africa. At the end of his first week in office, Macron left Gao, a city in Mali's deeply-troubled north, after lunching with French troops and sitting for talks with Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Macron was keen to display his defence and security credentials after promising to meet with some of the 1,700 French soldiers stationed in Gao at France's largest foreign base, part of the larger "Barkhane" counter-terror force operating across the Sahel region. The operation comprises around 4,000 soldiers who are deployed in five countries -- Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso -- all of which are menaced by the jihadist threat across porous borders. Reaffirming a commitment for France's troops to remain "until the day there is no more Islamic terrorism in the region and the full sovereignty of the Sahel is restored, not before", Macron also had warm words for American military cooperation in Africa. He described an "exemplary" relationship with the United States on counter-terror efforts, adding that he "did not doubt" such cooperation with the Trump administration would be maintained. The United States has carried out military training in Chad and Mauritania and has increased its special operations presence on the continent. Macron also made clear his desire for greater action by the Malian government in implementing its 2015 peace deal, which has repeatedly faltered in the face of inaction and ongoing rivalries between the patchwork of armed groups operating in the north who signed the accord. "My wish is for us to accelerate" the deal's implementation, Macron said at a news conference, describing the so-called Algiers Accord as the top priority to ensure Mali's security. Macron is keen to promote economic development rather than military might, with hopes that improving young Malians' lives will dim the allure of joining jihadist groups. Investing in infrastructure, education and health, Macron said, all of which have suffered badly from the Malian state's near absence in large swathes of its northern territory, was the "best antidote" to jihad. To that end, France promised "constant" military, diplomatic and political support with the help of the French Development Agency (AFD), he said. Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande said in January that France would boost the AFD's budget for Africa by 15 per cent over the coming years to 23 billion euros (USD 25.7 billion). Macron is travelling with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who as the former defence minister knows Gao well, and his replacement in that job, Sylvie Goulard, as well as AFD chief Remy Rioux. The French president said he would also attend a meeting of the G5 Sahel countries, the same nations where the Barkhane force has a presence, in the coming weeks.
Macron visits Mali's restive north