The two French nationals were interrogated by Burkina Faso’s armed forces last Saturday about security-related issues for their work with a private local company, according to an official from the French embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. No espionage activities were mentioned, said the diplomat who added that the French were not expelled but were asked to return to France and they left the same evening.
The French were working for a company linked to Nokia, the telecommunications multinational, doing cell phone antenna installations, according to another Western diplomat based in Ouagadougou, who was not authorized to speak to the media.
France, which has had troops in West Africa’s Sahel region since 2013 when it helped drive Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali, is facing growing pushback from governments and ordinary citizens who say its presence has yielded little results in containing escalating jihadi violence. French forces left Mali this year after relations with Mali’s junta frayed and more recently, its relationship with Burkina Faso has also been deteriorating.
Earlier this month the government suspended French broadcaster Radio France Internationale for having relayed an “intimidation message” attributed to a “terrorist,” according to a statement from the junta. Anti-French protests have become frequent throughout the capital with the situation turning serious after the country’s second coup this year at the end of September, when protesters waving Russian flags attacked and damaged the French embassy and badly damaged and looted the building housing the French Institute, which promotes French culture.
“There is a clear trend now that suggests an eventual break with France and move toward Russia,” said Michael Shurkin, senior fellow at Atlantic Council and director of global programs at 14 North Strategies. “Partly this has to do with public opinion and pressure on the junta to be seen to be doing something to address the security situation. And many (Burkina Faso citizens) believe France is an obstacle in that struggle.”
Burkina Faso’s new junta leader Ibrahim Traore has been more overtly open to working with other international partners, notably Russia. Earlier this month its Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyelem de Tambela visited Russia to strengthen relations and consolidate efforts to combat the extremist threat in the region, said Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs.
It’s unclear how far Burkina Faso will go in distancing itself from France, say analysts. The French still have several hundred special forces with Operation Sabre based in the country.