Emmanuel Macron has paid national tribute to 13 soldiers killed in Mali in a helicopter accident while fighting jihadist insurgents, sparking debate over the country’s mission in western Africa.
Hundreds lined Paris’ Alexandre III bridge as the funeral motorcade bearing 13 coffins drew into Les Invalides where 2,500 people attended the ceremony, broadcast live on a giant screen outside the military complex. Among those present were children from the soldiers’ home bases.
The deaths were the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and prompted soul-searching over France’s 4,500-member Barkhane operation in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel.
Mr Macron, the French president, last week said that "all options are on the table" and issued an appeal for more European support ahead of this week’s Nato summit outside London on Tuesday.
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Britain already has helicopters and around 100 men on the ground while the US provides intelligence on jihadist movements across an area the size of Western Europe.
Bestowing the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award, on "thirteen children of France" and among its "bravest soldiers", Mr Macron said: "Freedom often has, alas, the taste of blood shed."
"In the name of the nation, I bow before their sacrifice, I bow before the families’ pain."
"They died on a mission for France to protect the peoples of the Sahel, for the security of their compatriots and the freedom of the world, for us here present."
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the Malian president, also attended the ceremony.
Some 41 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 France intervened after receiving satellite imagery showing militants were heading for the capital, Bamako.
There has been a rise in attacks with some questioning whether the operation would end in military quagmire but public approval for the operation remains high, at 58 per cent according to an Ifop poll out on Monday.
The national tribute came amid a row between France’s army chief and Charlie Hebdo, after the satirical weekly published online cartoons linking the 13 soldiers’ deaths with the army’s recent recruitment campaign.
In one drawing, Mr Macron stands before a coffin in front of the slogan: "I joined the ranks to stand out from the crowd.” Another slogan reads: “I am focused on others and my future.”
General Thierry Burkhard, the French army’s chief of staff, expressed his "outrage" at the cartoons, saying in an open letter they “sullied” victims and their families.
The magazine’s editor Laurent "Riss" Sourisseau defended the magazine’s right to uphold its "satirical spirit", while praising the soldiers’ “devotion” and the army’s “importance” in fighting fundamentalism.
"We know that their mission is difficult and that they are dealing with merciless enemies," he wrote in a response to Gen Burkhard.