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French soldiers disembark from a U.S. Air Force C130 cargo plane at a base at Niamey, Niger, on June 9, 2021.Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

When Joe Biden invited Emmanuel Macron to the White House for a state dinner last year, the U.S. President sought to butter up his French counterpart on the heels of a rough patch in U.S.-French relations.

Mr. Macron had been smarting after the Biden administration had struck a new security alliance with Australia that led the Aussies to scrap plans to buy French-built submarines. The French President was also upset about the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, whose massive clean-energy and electric-vehicle subsidies threatened to hurt European players.

Accordingly, Mr. Biden fell over himself to make amends by heaping praise on Mr. Macron, waxing nostalgic about France’s support for the American Revolution and saluting its efforts to promote democratic values. “France is our oldest ally, our unwavering partner in freedom’s cause,” Mr. Biden said. “And the United States could not ask for a better partner in this work than France. For centuries, we’ve come together, charted a course toward a world of greater freedom, greater opportunity, greater dignity, and greater peace.”

Those words ring hollow in the wake of last month’s coup in Niger, as the U.S. and France find themselves at odds over how to deal with the military junta that ousted the African country’s democratically elected leader. The Biden administration has once again thrown France under the bus, this time by cozying up to the putschists in Niger who have seized on anti-French sentiment in their country, a former French colony, to justify overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum.

Mr. Bazoum, who remains under house arrest in the capital city of Niamey, was the only remaining Western ally in the Sahel region of Africa, which has seen successive coups in recent years. Leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso were both ousted by military juntas that have aligned themselves with Russia and expelled French troops from their territories. The fate of France’s military presence in Niger, where it has 1,500 soldiers stationed, is now in jeopardy.

Attacks by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have surged in Mali and Burkina Faso since France withdrew its troops. According to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index, the Sahel region is “now the epicentre of terrorism… accounting for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than both South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa combined.” Fully 43 percent of the global total of 6,701 deaths from terrorism last year occurred in the Sahel.

Russia’s Wagner Group rushed to fill the void left by France’s withdrawal from Mali. And Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was quick to offer his group’s services to Niger’s junta after the coup. It is still unclear how Mr. Prigozhin’s presumed death this week in a plane crash will factor into the U.S.’s attempts to prevent Russia from gaining a foothold in Niger.

The Biden administration’s move to undermine France’s strategy of seeking to restore Mr. Bazoum to power was seen as a reflection of its dissatisfaction with Mr. Macron’s handling of the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. Washington now seems willing to make a deal with the military junta in Niger – to maintain 1,100 U.S. troops and a U.S. drone air base in the country from which to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations across northern Africa – even if it means forcing France to the sidelines in a region it has long considered as part of its sphere of influence.

“The United States can go where France cannot and should not. It can and should do more in terms of all manner of assistance,” Atlantic Council Africa expert Michael Shurkin said this month in a blog post. “The catch is that by essentially acquiescing to the coup in Niger, not to mention those in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, it is betraying its own rhetoric regarding democracy promotion.”

Tellingly, Washington continues to refrain from using the term “coup” to describe the situation in Niger. Unlike France, it has not called for Mr. Bazoum’s reinstatement as president. While France has backed a threat by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to intervene militarily to restore Mr. Bazoum to power, the U.S. has refused to countenance that threat. For its part, in an Aug. 1 statement, Global Affairs Canada referred to the situation in Niger as “coup attempt” and reiterated France’s call for Mr. Bazoum’s reinstatement.

Paris was especially miffed that Washington this month sent acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to meet with one of the junta leaders in Niamey. France was also peeved by the U.S.’s move to appoint a new ambassador to Niger in the wake of the coup, a move that appeared to lend legitimacy to the military junta.

All in all, the U.S. response to the coup in Niger has been another exercise in diplomatic humiliation for its “oldest ally.”

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