By Agence France-Presse
French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to celebrate Christmas with French troops, saying Paris would work to give “new force” to the regional fight against Islamist militants.
The jihadist insurgency in several poor Sahel nations will be a top item on Macron’s agenda in 48-hour stay in the region where attacks have spread since the Islamist militancy began seven years ago in Mali.
Away from weeks of protest strikes gripping France, Macron’s personal chef travelled with him to cook dinner for around 1,000 troops at the military base in Port-Bouet, near Abidjan’s airport.
“I hope we can give new depth, new commitments, a new force to this operation and win a fight that is key to the stability and security of the Sahel,” the French leader said addressing troops at Port-Bouet.
“We will keep up the fight against jihadist terrorists. We will continue to do so with our African partners and with our European and international partners,” he said. “Because if we let the threat flourish, it will impact us too.”
Earlier Macron and his wife Brigitte were met at the airport with his Ivorian counterpart Alassane Ouattara.
Despite some 4,500 French troops in the Sahel region, alongside a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The leaders of five Sahel nations are due to attend a summit in Paris on January 13, when Macron said they would clarify the “political and strategic framework” of the operation against the militants.
– Traditional French Christmas fare –
Macron met several French soldiers who took part in November in an anti-terrorist operation in Mali, where 13 men lost their lives.
Dining in a huge tent installed on a football pitch, on the menu for Macron and troops were traditional French Christmas fare, including foie gras, poultry from the Landes region served with morel mushrooms, regional French cheeses, chocolate cake and mandarines from Corsica.
At midnight, a group of French Foreign Legion members joined by local staff sang happy birthday to the president who turned 42 on Saturday.
On Sunday, Macron will pay a flying visit for talks with President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, where jihadist attacks are frequent, as in both neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.
Macron spent Christmas in 2017 with troops deployed to Niger and went last year to Chad.
On Saturday, Macron and Ouattara will visit an International Counter-Terrorism Academy launched by the two countries near Abidjan in October 2018.
Macron will also visit the rundown Abidjan district of Koumassi with Didier Drogba, a former hero of the Olympique de Marseille and Chelsea football clubs, to inaugurate sports facilities.
Two years after the first trip to Abidjan when he laid the foundation stone for a metro network, Macron is due to finalise plans with Ouattara to finance the vast construction effort, estimated at 1.5 billion euros ($1.66 billion).