Understanding the public response: a strategic narrative perspective on France’s Sahelian operations

Gordon Cumming, Roel Van der Velde, Tony Chafer

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Strategic narratives now face unrealistic expectations as to what they can achieve in the military field. This article asks when and how such narratives lose traction during protracted military interventions. To address these questions, which are crucial at a time when so much modern warfare takes place in the “fourth” dimension, this study develops a conceptual framework that focuses initially on the weakening of a narrative’s content and, subsequently, on its loss of normative resonance and verisimilitude. The latter two factors are beyond the control of even the most skilful strategic narrator, particularly where narratives are required to appeal to audiences with different norms. Our framework is applied to the case of France’s military operations in Mali (Serval) and the Western Sahel (Barkhane). It finds that, whereas France’s compelling Serval narrative was congruent with strong French and Malian public backing, its Barkhane narrative weakened over time, resonating less with prevailing societal norms, becoming less attuned to events on the ground and ultimately coinciding with a sharp decline in public support in France and Mali. It concludes that strategic narratives afford agency to policymakers but are constantly open to contestation and struggle to cope with diverse audiences and deteriorating “evenemential” contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages23
JournalEuropean Security
Early online date2 Mar 2022
Publication statusEarly online - 2 Mar 2022


  • Strategic narratives
  • public opinion
  • military
  • Sahel
  • security
  • France


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