France bans extreme-right group after rally violence

Zouaves Paris have been banned after being blamed for beating up anti-racism activists at a Zemmour rally in December.

A torn poster of the French far-right media pundit and presidential hopeful, Eric Zemmour in Paris.
A torn poster of the French far-right media pundit and presidential hopeful, Eric Zemmour in Paris. A group that beat up anti-racism demonstrators at one of his rallies has been banned. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

France Wednesday banned an extreme-right youth group known as the “Zouaves Paris” blamed for attacks on anti-racism activists at a raucous rally last month by far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour.

“The group ‘Zouaves Paris’ was banned this morning at a cabinet meeting, in line with the instructions of the President” Emmanuel Macron, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on Twitter, saying the group had incited “hatred and violence”.

READ MORE Zemmour rally near Paris marred as anti-racism activists attacked during protest

The decree prohibiting the group, founded in 2017 and believed to have only around 20 hardcore members, said it “propagated an openly racist discourse” that included “symbols of Nazi ideology” and “white superiority”.

Members were accused of assaulting activists from SOS Racisme at the December 5 rally by Zemmour shortly after the controversial pundit announced his candidacy for the 2022 presidential elections.

Its leader Marc de Cacqueray-Valmenier, 23, was detained and charged with assault. The group takes its name from elite units of French troops who fought in Africa in the 19th century.

READ MORE: We can expect more violence during French presidential campaign

Zemmour is accused by opponents of being a racist, an allegation he denies. He has repeatedly however criticised Islam and immigration, which he says are harming French identity.

The rally was marked by clashes with anti-racism activists, and Zemmour himself was at one point put in a headlock and suffered an injury to his wrist.

Zemmour’s campaign enjoyed a surge in popularity ahead of the declaration of his candidacy, but it appears to have slackened in recent weeks, although most polls still predict he will win around 15 percent in the first round.

He is currently facing a struggle to muster the 500 signatures needed from French mayors to formally register his candidacy.

READ MORE Could a French electoral rule stop Zemmour from running for president?

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France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

The last soldiers belonging to France's Barkhane operation in Mali have now left the African country, the French chiefs of staff said on Monday.

France says all troops left Mali, ending nine-year military mission

French forces have been supporting Mali against insurgents for nearly a decade, but President Emmanuel Macron decided to pull out after France and the Malian junta fell out in the wake of a military takeover.

“Today at 13H00 Paris time (1100 GMT) the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger,” the statement said.

The army had met the “major military logistics challenge” of the pull-out “in an orderly and safe fashion”, it added.

After ties ruptured between Paris and the junta that took power in Mali in August 2020, France began to withdraw its troops in February, as jihadist violence surged in the Sahel.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Why were French soldiers in Mali?

Friction developed over the junta’s delays in restoring civilian rule and escalated when Mali brought in Russian paramilitaries — personnel described by France as “mercenaries” from the pro-Kremlin Wagner group.

‘Prevented caliphate’

Macron on Monday congratulated the military on its nine years in Mali, saying it had “prevented the establishment of a territorial caliphate, and fought against terrorists that attack local populations and threaten Europe”. 

Most high-ranking members of the “terrorist groups” had been “neutralised”, he said, adding that 59 French soldiers had died in Mali in total.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally based on the findings of non-governmental organisation ACLED.

In this file photo taken on December 07, 2021 shows the French flag and France-led special operations logo for the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa’s troubled Sahel region. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

BACKGROUND: France announces withdrawal of troops from Mali

At its peak, France’s Barkhane mission had 5,100 troops among five Sahel allies, all former French colonies — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The forces have provided key support in air power, troop transport and reconnaissance. France has an air base in Niger’s capital Niamey where it has deployed drones.

After the Malian pullout, the mission will have “around 2,500” troops, Barkhane commander General Laurent Michon said last month.

The reconfigured mission will emphasise “more cooperative operations,” he said.

Frontline Niger

France will keep more than 1,000 men in Niger, where a tactical group will continue to work in partnership with the Nigerien forces.

Niger is a frontline state in the fight against jihadism as the unstable region struggles with a string of military coups.

“The democratic regression in West Africa is extremely worrying,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French MPs ahead of a trip to the region in July. 

“However, in spite of these events (and) the withdrawal from Mali, France will continue to help West African armies fight terrorist groups.”

Niger is one of the biggest recipients of French aid, receiving 143 million euros ($146 million) last year.

READ ALSO: France calls Mali’s exit from defence accords ‘unjustified’

The two sides will sign agreements for a French loan of 50 million euros and a grant of 20 million euros.

Niger, the world’s poorest country by the benchmark of the UN’s Human Development Index, has been badly hit by the jihadist insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then swept to neighbouring countries.

Niger is facing insurgencies both on its western border with Mali and Burkina Faso and on its south-eastern frontier with Nigeria.

More than a thousand troops will be deployed in Niger, providing air support and training, according to French sources.

French troops are also in Gabon, Ivory Coast and Senegal, as well as in the east of Africa, in Djibouti.

READ ALSO: Macron agrees to return Benin sculptures ‘without delay’

Macron in June asked the government and military chiefs “to rethink our overall presence on the African continent by the autumn.”

He called for “a presence that is less static and less exposed” and “a closer relationship” with African armed forces.