Paris (CNSNews.com) – As France battles to retain influence in the Sahel in the face of military coups and growing Russian influence, the emergence of anti-France propaganda online videos appears to be part of a campaign designed to strengthen local support for Russia and its Wagner Group.
In videos clearly designed to encourage positive views of Moscow among local populations in the region, the notorious Russian mercenary company – which is widely believed to be Kremlin-backed although Moscow denies links – has been touting its importance for the region.
Circulating on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and pro-Russian channels on Telegram, the poor-quality videos take aim at France, the region’s former colonial power, with some depicting French troops as “zombies.”
Their message appears to be focused on denouncing French “neocolonial” influence, which the Wagner Group wants to counter in favor of Russia.
In one video, a French rat called “Emmanuel” raids a house, prompting its owner to call in a heroic figure who kills it with a sledgehammer. The message is not subtle: The rat-killer’s helmet and the sledgehammer are both marked with the letter “W,” and Emmanuel is the first name of French President Macron.
The sledgehammer reference is a grim one too. Last fall a Wagner Group member accused of changing sides in the war in Ukraine was reportedly executed with a sledgehammer blow to the head.
Another of the propaganda videos depicts Russian soldiers fighting alongside comrades from Mali, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire against zombies whose helmets sport the colors of the French national flag.
Another depicts a fight against a gigantic snake, again painted with the French colors, as it attacks the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou.
When a soldier fighting against the zombies shouts out that they are running out of ammunition, a paratrooper wearing Wagner insignia swoops in with the needed supplies.
“This propaganda is the proof that [the Wagner group] has come out of its role of denial to present itself as a private army at the service of the governments which have requested it: Mali today, perhaps Burkina Faso tomorrow,” Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe, told the French network Africa News this month.
“It is easy to criticize France because it does not defend itself very well and has not fully realized that an information war is being played out,” he said.
“It’s impossible to be 100 percent certain of the origin of the videos, but they were distributed by the usual relays of Wagner on social networks, which is a rather clear signature,” a researcher with All Eyes on Wagner, a Paris-based monitoring group, told the Challenges business weekly recently.
The group said the videos “fulfil the mission assigned to Wagner, which is to support the governments that employ them.”
French authorities regularly accuse the Wagner Group of seeking to manipulate public opinion against France in the Sahel region, where a French campaign to help local forces battling jihadists has come under increasing pressure, amid rising Russian influence.
Researchers say the anti-French propaganda began after military coups in Mali in 2020 and in Burkina Faso (twice) last year. The military juntas in the two countries have stepped up diplomatic contacts with Russia, and the Wagner Group is deeply engaged in the region.
Anti-French and anti-Western sentiment has been growing in the Sahel. French troops are under pressure to withdraw, with authorities in some countries accusing them of ineffectiveness in the anti-jihad fight.
Both Mali and Burkina Faso have expelled French ambassadors, and Burkina Faso last month ordered France to withdraw its 400 special forces soldiers in the country. French troops were already withdrawn last year from Mali.
After the soldiers in Burkina Faso have departed, France will be left with around 3,000 troops in the region, based in Niger and Chad.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Mali on Tuesday, and said the provision of Russian equipment to the Malians in recent months had enhanced their capacity to fight against jihadists.
Lavrov criticized Western nations for what he said was a negative response to the “evolution” in relations between Russia and African countries.
(Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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