In the Gulf of Guinea, the much-discussed patrols of the French “Mistral”

The gray color of its hull could almost camouflage it on the murky and polluted waters of Lagos, Nigeria's coastal megacity

In the Gulf of Guinea, the much-discussed patrols of the French “Mistral”

The gray color of its hull could almost camouflage it on the murky and polluted waters of Lagos, Nigeria's coastal megacity. But in the Gulf of Guinea, the Mistral, a French navy ship which patrols to secure this maritime route, does not go unnoticed.

At the foot of this 199 meter floating behemoth, the fishing canoes appear as tiny as ants. And his siren, which sounds to warn him of his departure from the port, succeeds in cutting through the din of the Nigerian megacity of 20 million inhabitants, where he made a stopover.

For this difficult maneuver, it is the “pacha”, Captain Olivier Roussille, who takes the controls, binoculars in hand and assisted by around fifteen sailors and officers gathered on the bridge. “With strong currents and a bunch of canoes around, it’s complicated to move this 23,000-ton machine,” one of the officers whispered to AFP.

Departing from Toulon, in the south of France in August, the helicopter carrier Mistral, the second largest French warship after the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, is on a four-month mission in the Gulf of Guinea, the along the West African coast. The ship operates as part of the “Corymbe” mission, which contributes to the maritime security of the Gulf, by ensuring the permanent presence of a French naval vessel since 1990 on this route, one of the most dangerous in the world. And where France has strong economic interests, particularly linked to oil exploitation.

Tensions with Niger

“We work alongside the navies of the Gulf of Guinea countries to fight against piracy, illicit trafficking, including drug trafficking, but also against illegal fishing, which are real scourges,” explains Captain Olivier Roussille.

Surveillance at sea, information sharing, operations on the high seas, and exercises with the navies of the countries bordering the Gulf, from Senegal to Angola, are the daily lives of hundreds of naval personnel who are also friends of the land and military armies. air embarked on this helicopter carrier. In Lagos, where two AFP journalists embarked at the beginning of October for twenty-four hours, two exercises were carried out with the Nigerian navy: one consisted of checking a suspicious ship where illicit gasoline and cocaine were transported, the other simulated a military operation to free hostages kidnapped at sea by pirates and then brought back to dry land.

The particularity of the Mistral, a so-called “amphibious” military vessel, is that in the event of a crisis it can carry out force projection operations on land or in the air, such as combat helicopters, drones, vehicles, equipment or troops.

So its presence in the Gulf of Guinea, in September in particular, at a time when the coastal countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened Niger with military intervention after the coup d'état at the end of July by soldiers in Niamey, was widely talked about. In particular because France supported these ECOWAS countries. And had been intransigent with the military in Niamey, causing a diplomatic crisis between the new leaders and the former colonial power, which had made Niger a pivotal country in its fight against jihadism in the Sahel, after having been pushed out of the Mali and Burkina Faso.

On September 10, the military regime in Niamey accused France of “deploying its forces” in several African countries with a view to future “aggression,” citing in particular a French military ship that had docked three days earlier in Cotonou, “ with personnel and military means on board", which Paris immediately denied.

Considerable challenge

If the Mistral did indeed dock in Cotonou at the beginning of September, it was still within the framework of the maritime security operation “Corymbe” and a conference organized with the Beninese authorities, the captain told AFP. “This stopover was planned for a long time, for at least a year,” well before the coup in Niger, he said.

“There was quite a bit of noise about our presence, but we were only there as part of this operation” and “no equipment or personnel were unloaded during this stopover,” he assures. .

And as for the possibility for the Mistral to participate in the disengagement of the French forces driven out by Niamey? “In the same way as all large amphibious vessels we may be required to be used” for an operation of this kind, explains Captain Olivier Roussille.

Because the French army must take up a considerable challenge between now and the end of the year: evacuating its equipment from Niger, most of it by land, to Chad, then to Cameroon, to the port of Douala, before their repatriation in France by sea.

The Mistral, which has hangars for up to 60 armored vehicles (or 13 tanks), 16 helicopters as well as a troop transport capacity of 400 to 900 soldiers, and already in the area, "may be one of the options », According to Olivier Roussille. “Now, that’s not planned,” he assures. We have not yet been alerted to participate in this operation, and we are continuing our mission. »