France will continue to fight Islamist militants in north and west Africa but other European countries should do more to contribute, the new French president Emmanuel Macron has said on his first visit to French troops fighting jihadis in Mali.
The 39-year-old sought to emphasise his new role as army commander-in-chief with an African trip days after taking office designed to stress the importance of France fighting militants in Mali and the broader Sahel region, who he said still 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.
But Macron, who is seeking to increase European defence cooperation, said other European other countries, in particular Germany, “can do more, in terms of backup, in terms of development, partnerships for equipment”.
France, which has been hard hit by Islamist attacks resulting in more than 230 deaths in its territory in the past two years, remains under a state of emergency and its military has about 4,000 soldiers deployed in five countries in the Sahel, including Mali and Niger. The first were deployed in 2013.
The military tone was in keeping with much of the new president’s first week in office. He broke with tradition by boarding an open-topped, camouflaged military jeep – instead of a civilian limousine – for the traditional drive up the Champs-Elysées in Paris on his inauguration day and has made a private visit to the bedside of wounded soldiers in Paris.
This clear signalling accompanied his resolve to shore up the European Union in the wake of Brexit. Meeting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin, both went further than expected in saying they would be prepared to look at changing EU treaties in order to allow a further integration of the eurozone. When the pro-European Macron appointed his new prime minister and government, the foreign ministry was pointedly renamed the ministry for Europe and foreign affairs.
Macron, who was elected on 7 May with a resounding victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen, warned before taking office that he would have “no state of grace”. In a country struggling with mass unemployment, marked by terrorism, slow economic growth and public debt, the election was defined by anti-establishment anger and disillusionment with politics, with traditional governing parties from the right and left being knocked out in the first round and abstentions high in the final run-off.
This anti-political feeling was clear in the first opinion poll published since Macron took office. The Elabe poll showed that although a majority supported Macron’s unprecedented decision to form a government from a mix of ministers from the left, right and centre – with half the appointments coming from civil society non-politicians – Macron himself and his rightwing prime minister, Edouard Philippe, were beginning their terms with the lowest public confidence levels of any new French leaders in the past 20 years.
The poll found 45% of voters said they trusted Macron’s ability to tackle France’s problems, while 36% trusted the new prime minister. This was far higher than the Socialist François Hollande’s popularity ratings as he left office, but Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy begun their time in office with confidence ratings above 50%.
Macron’s new political movement, La République En Marche! (La REM), must now win a majority in parliament in legislative elections on 11 and 18 June if Macron is to be able push through his plans to overhaul labour regulations, social security, schools and pensions.
As the election campaign begins in earnest this weekend, the new government met for the first time amid stern warnings from the new president that there must be discipline and unity, despite the contrasting views of ministers from an array different political parties.
France’s new energy minister, Nicolas Hulot, a well-known environmentalist and former TV presenter with stronger views than Macron on abandoning nuclear energy, would have to apply Macron’s policies, the government spokesman Christophe Castaner said firmly after the cabinet meeting. “A minister doesn’t set conditions for a president or a prime minister,” said Castaner.