Huge protests in Niger call for French forces to leave after coup

By Boureima Balima

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside a French military base in Niger's capital Niamey on Saturday demanding that its troops leave in the wake of a military coup that has widespread popular support but which Paris refuses to recognise.

The July 26 coup - one of eight in West and Central Africa since 2020 - has sucked in global powers concerned about a shift to military rule across the region.

Most impacted is France, whose influence over its former colonies has waned in West Africa in recent years just as popular vitriol has grown. Its forces have been kicked out of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso since coups in those countries, reducing its role in a region-wide fight against deadly Islamist insurgencies.

Anti-French sentiment has risen in Niger since the coup but soured further last week when France ignored the junta's order for its ambassador, Sylvain Itte, to leave. Police have been instructed to expel him, the junta said.

Outside the military base on Saturday, protesters slit the throat of a goat dressed in French colours and carried coffins draped in French flags as a line of Nigerien soldiers looked on. Others carried signs calling for France to leave.

Reuters reporters said it was the biggest gathering yet since the coup, suggesting that support for the junta - and derision of France - was not waning.

"We are ready to sacrifice ourselves today, because we are proud," said demonstrator Yacouba Issoufou. "They plundered our resources and we became aware. So they're going to get out."

By early evening local time, there had been no apparent outbreaks of violence.

France had cordial relations with ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and has about 1,500 troops stationed in Niger.

On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he spoke to Bazoum every day and that "the decisions we will take, whatever they may be, will be based upon exchanges with Bazoum."

Niger's junta denounced the comments as divisive and served only to perpetrate France's neo-colonial relationship.

France is not the only country with concerns. West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS has slapped sanctions on Niger and threatened military action as a last resort. The United States and European powers also have troops stationed in the country.

Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu, who holds ECOWAS' revolving chairmanship, said last week that a nine-month transition back to civilian rule could satisfy regional powers.

Niger's junta had previously proposed a three-year timeline.

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by David Holmes)