Hundreds of people gathered in Paris on Monday to honour 13 soldiers killed while battling jihadist insurgents in Mali, ahead of a national ceremony to mourn a disaster that has prompted soul-searching over the costs of the six-year campaign in West Africa.
Sporadic applause punctuated sombre silence as a motorcade bearing the coffins crossed the Alexandre III bridge toward the Invalides military hospital and museum.
The soldiers died when two helicopters collided last Monday while pursuing jihadists in northern Mali where militant violence has soared in recent months.
It was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and raised fresh questions about the effectiveness of France’s 4,500-member Barkhane operation in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel.
Margot Louvet, 23, came from Gap in southeast France for the procession, wearing a T-shirt with the official portrait of one of the soldiers killed, her friend Antoine Serre, 22.
“He was a pearl, the kindest and most generous,” she told AFP. “Being here is a way to mourn him, and realise that he won’t be coming back.”
President Emmanuel Macron was due to lead the commemoration this afternoon, and bestow the Legion d’Honneur on the fallen soldiers.
Some 2,500 people are expected to attend, and the ceremony will also be broadcast on a giant screen set up outside the Invalides.
“It’s an honour to be here,” Emmanuelle Pujol, 54, said on the Alexandre III bridge. “It’s important that people be here to support their comrades and the families.”
– ‘All options on the table’ –
The French forces in Mali are tasked with training local security forces to take on the jihadists, but so far these remain woefully unprepared despite years of pledges of more international funding and equipment.
Forty-one French soldiers have now died in the Sahel over the past six years.
The intervention began in 2013, when insurgents swept into Mali’s north and rapidly advanced before being pushed back.
But despite France’s presence the jihadists have regrouped to carry out deadly attacks and violence has spread to neighbouring countries.
Macron said the government would begin a thorough review of Barkhane in the wake of the helicopter accident, vowing that “all options are on the table”.
He also reiterated his call for EU allies to step up their participation in the West Africa operation after years of failing to secure significant support.
Only Britain has contributed helicopters and security personnel, while the US provides intelligence on jihadist movements across an area the size of Western Europe.
So far, only the far-left France Unbowed party has openly called for the Barkhane troops to be brought home.
An Ifop poll for the Lettre de l’Expansion newsletter, published Monday, showed that 58 percent of respondents approve the Sahel operation, a level hardly changed from a previous poll in March 2013.
– Cartoon controversy-
Controversy flared over the weekend after the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons online associating the 13 soldiers’ deaths with the army’s recent recruitment campaign.
In one drawing, Macron stands before a coffin in front of the slogan: “I joined the ranks to stand out from the crowd.”
The French army’s chief of staff, General Thierry Burkhard, expressed his “indignation” at the cartoons, saying in an open letter they sullied the period of mourning for the bereaved families.
The magazine’s editor Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau defended on Sunday the magazine’s “satirical spirit”, while acknowledging the importance of the work of the French army and the soldiers’ sacrifice.
“We know that their mission is difficult and that they are dealing with merciless enemies,” he wrote in a response to Burkhard, seen by AFP.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will also attend the ceremony, as he tries to defuse growing hostility at home to French and other foreign forces helping to fight Islamic militants.
Two Malian gendarmes were shot dead Sunday in the eastern town of Menaka, a local official said.
Keita on Saturday urged Malians not to “bite the hands of those who give us theirs today”.
Since January, more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in jihadist violence in Mali and Burkina Faso, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five countries, the UN said this month.