“Perhaps in order to avoid bloodshed, the U.S. was quickly keen to talk to the putschists. Maybe the better reaction should’ve been to put some conditions or guarantees before opening those channels,” said a French official familiar with the situation in Niger. The official, like others who spoke for this story, was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic matter.
The situation suggests a shifting balance of power in the region and underscores the differences between Paris and Washington’s interests in the country. The U.S., which uses Niger as a base for counterterrorism operations, may also believe it has more leverage than France, not least due to Paris’ baggage as its former colonizer.
Some former U.S. officials argue that France’s unhappiness with the U.S. approach is due in part to its agitation at losing one of its last strategic footholds in the West African Sahel, where other coups have already forced it to withdraw troops elsewhere. France has refused a request by the junta in Niger that it withdraw troops from the country.
“The stakes for France in Niger are much higher than for Washington … It’s a psychological and strategic defeat for France,” said Cameron Hudson, a former White House National Security Council official focused on Africa.
In West Africa, France is accustomed to seeing other world powers follow its lead, or at least its guidance. That’s not happening in this case.
Acting Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, on a lightning visit to Niger, met with coup representatives on Aug. 7 and urged them to reverse their actions. But she was denied a meeting with the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, and she acknowledged afterward that the junta appeared unwilling to reverse its anti-democratic moves.
French officials pointed to that as an example of being too quick to engage.
While France and the U.S. remain closely aligned on a range of topics, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, several points of tensions have emerged between the “oldest allies” in recent years. They include differences over a security partnership among Australia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, relations with China, and America’s Inflation Reduction Act, which Europeans fear will siphon investment away from Europe.
A U.S. official familiar with the issue acknowledged that some allies were unhappy with Nuland’s trip but would not say which allies or detail their concerns.
Nonetheless, the official defended the attempt to engage the coup leaders.
“The window of opportunity is closing,” the U.S. official said. “Do you let that window seal shut? Or inject some degree of flexibility?”
Ali El Husseini, an American with connections to the junta, said Niger’s new military rulers do not trust the French, not least because French officials are acting like they “don’t exist.”
They blame the French for the pressure they are feeling from surrounding countries, as well as what they see as corruption in Niger. They are unlikely to allow Bazoum back in charge, blaming him for much of that corruption as well, El Husseini said. But they are willing to engage with the United States, which they see as being less condescending, he said.
French officials maintain they are not engaging with the coup leaders to show their support for Bazoum. He is under house arrest but has managed to speak with foreign officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and publish appeals for help from the international community.
“There is no popular support for the junta,” a senior French diplomat said. “We don’t see a new regime that is gaining legitimacy. And we have a legitimate president who is fighting for survival.”
The State Department confirmed this week that the new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, will work from Niamey, Niger’s capital, even though the U.S. has reduced its diplomatic presence there for security reasons.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel would not say exactly when FitzGibbon would reach Niger. Asked by reporters if FitzGibbon would present her credentials to the military leaders, which could bolster their position, Patel said such a presentation wasn’t necessary for her to do her job.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council did not deny tensions between France and the United States over Niger, but stressed that the two allies continue to talk, as well as with representatives of African states.
“Our focus is on securing the release of President Bazoum and his family, and on a diplomatic path forward under the Nigerien constitution to preserve constitutional order,” NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the French Embassy in Washington, meanwhile, said, “There is close coordination and ongoing discussions.”
The Elysée Palace refused to comment on potential frictions between the U.S. and France, but the same senior French diplomat admitted there were differences in the approaches of partner countries seeking to resolve the crisis in Niger.
“We all have the same aim of restoring constitutional order, but with just a couple nuances expressed [between countries],” said the diplomat, adding that France’s stance was informed by its experience of coups in Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years.
France has pledged its full support to the West African body ECOWAS, which in meetings Thursday and Friday reiterated its threat of force if all else fails to restore democracy in Niger. The regional bloc has imposed sanctions on Niger and had earlier agreed to put a military force on stand-by.
Washington has made it clear to ECOWAS that the United States prefers diplomacy, the U.S. official said. Paris has indicated it would consider a request for military assistance should ECOWAS choose to intervene in Niger and ask for help.
France has 1,500 troops in Niger. Its refusal to quit the country militarily is partly about showing its support for the elected government, with which it struck the agreements for basing its troops.
The coup in Niger puts an end to one of the few solid partnerships Paris still enjoyed in the region, after it was forced to pull out troops involved in anti-terrorism operations in Mali and Burkina Faso.
It would also signal a failure of Macron’s revamped Africa strategy as France faces a wave of anti-French sentiment across West Africa, fueled by post-colonial grievances, failures to defeat an Islamist insurgency, and encouraged by propaganda campaigns from the Kremlin-backed Wagner mercenary group.
“If Niger falls, it’s not just France’s Africa policy that will be knocked down, but Europe’s entire policy in Africa because it will give terrorists a free rein in the region” with deep impacts on “migration routes” to Europe, said Michèle Peyron, head of the French parliament’s friendship group with Niger and a French lawmaker from Macron’s Renaissance party.
The United States has 1,100 troops in Niger, where it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars training security forces to battle terrorist organizations. Niger is a critical part of America’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, especially given the rise of Islamist extremist groups in Africa.
Unlike France, the United States has not yet formally designated the ouster of Bazoum a coup. Doing so triggers a law that could lead to an end to U.S. military aid to the country, although exceptions can be made.
The United States has paused some security and economic programs to pressure the junta to restore Bazoum to power. It views its aid as leverage, but it also worries that fully halting the aid could mean losing that leverage.
The junta appears unwilling so far to let financial considerations move it off its current course. It has threatened to try Bazoum for treason or even execute him in case of an outside military intervention.
Some former U.S. officials said the United States should weigh its own interests before heeding French calls to shun the junta, and not just because of America’s counterterrorism interest in the country.
There’s also the possibility that U.S. rivals China, Russia or networks like Wagner could fill a vacuum in Niger as they have elsewhere in Africa.
“What good does it do to abandon the field to Russia, Wagner, or any other malign outside actor?” asked Peter Pham, a former senior State Department official with long experience on the continent.
Clea Caulcutt reported from Paris.