French ambassador in Niger stays put, defies junta’s deadline to quit the country

By Joseph Ataman and Nimi Princewill, CNN

CNN  —  France’s ambassador to Niger is staying put in the West African country in defiance of an ultimatum by its military rulers ordering his exit within 48 hours on Friday.

French envoy Sylvain Itte was asked to leave by the junta for refusing to attend a meeting scheduled with Niger’s foreign minister, including “other actions by the French government that are against Niger’s interest,” the Nigerien foreign ministry said last week.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that Itte will not leave Niger, despite the expiration of the junta’s deadline.

Speaking at a conference for French ambassadors, Macron said France’s policy towards Niger is “the right one,” and stated that it was based on “the commitment of our diplomats, of our ambassador on the ground who remains, in spite of pressures, in spite of everything and in spite of all the declarations made by illegitimate authorities.”

France does not recognize Niger’s military authorities and insists that deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, who was toppled in a coup last month remains the country’s only legitimate authority.

“We must be clear, coherent” in supporting a democratically elected leader like Bazoum, Macron also said Monday.

“If not, who will listen to us?” he added, asking how African partners could trust France if the country’s support were not as resolute amid what he described as an “epidemic of coups” in the Sahel.

Up to 1,500 French soldiers are stationed in Niger, which has been a major partner of the French in the Sahel region.

The European Union also expressed its “full support” for the French ambassador Monday, stating that the decision of the junta to expel him “is a new provocation which can in no way help to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis,” its spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, Nabila Massrali, said.

“As already expressed, the European Union does not and will not recognize the authorities resulting from the putsch in Niger,” Massrali added.

Last month, France and the EU announced sanctions against Niger, including the suspension of financial aid to the country following the coup, which has received endorsement from a section of Nigeriens.

Hundreds of Nigerien demonstrators took to the streets in the country’s Maradi and Tillabéri regions on Sunday to show solidarity with the junta.

Also at the weekend, pro-junta demonstrators, mostly nationals of neighboring Benin and Burkina Faso thronged the streets to express support for Niger’s military administration.

The junta is strongly backed by the military governments of Burkina Faso and Mali, which have promised to provide military support to Niger if West African bloc ECOWAS carries out its threat of a potential military intervention to reinstate Bazoum.

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