No ‘spectator nation’

Turmoil in the Ivory Coast puts paid to the claim that France is anti-war.

Chris Bickerton

Topics Politics

French forces have killed 15 demonstrators in the Ivory Coast, after French conflict with the Ivorian government provoked nationwide riots. In this episode, France’s foreign policy is showing its true colours.

Ever since France threatened to veto a US-led resolution authorising an attack on Iraq almost two years ago, president Jacques Chirac has used any available opportunity to plug his anti-war credentials. When Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi recently visited Brussels, Chirac left the European Union (EU) summit meeting early. His aides say this was not a snub, but most saw it as a reaction to Allawi’s comments about ‘spectator nations’ needing to get involved in the reconstruction of Iraq (1). With president George W Bush re-elected, it is likely that Chirac will continue to play the transatlantic rift to his advantage.

With the recent events in the Ivory Coast, however, Chirac’s luck in foreign policy may be about to run out. The worsening situation in the former French colony exposes France’s hypocrisy: while opposing the US intervention in Iraq, it has few qualms about throwing its own weight around in West Africa. French militarism might be on a smaller scale than the USA’s, but this isn’t because of any particular restraint. Rather, in the words of Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, ‘the fact is that colonisation is over’ (2); which simply means that France cannot be as heavy-handed as it might like to be. No doubt the big US troop deployments in Iraq and the close relationship between the White House and the Iraqi interim government are being eyed enviously by frustrated military planners back in Paris, who have had to make do with a few thousand French soldiers and a recalcitrant Ivorian president.

What is France’s interest in the Ivory Coast? Since the 1994 debacle in Rwanda and the ill-fated Operation Turquoise, France has been keen to rebuild its reputation and reassert its influence in Africa, in particular in its former colonies. Citing its experience in dealing with African trouble spots, France spearheaded the EU’s first peacekeeping mission in the Congo in mid-2003, supplying the commander of the force and around 700 troops. When the coup in the Ivory Coast failed in September 2002, the French government seized the opportunity, citing the security threat to French nationals as its reason for intervention.

At the time, the French Socialist Party (PS) argued that Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, a former Marxist and long-time friend of many leading figures of the PS, should be given full backing. The right wing Gaullist Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) government preferred to undermine him by enforcing a ceasefire line, which gave the rebels de facto control of the north west of the country.

As the situation deteriorated in early 2003, France convened talks at Linas-Marcoussis, the national rugby stadium on the outskirts of Paris. Then French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin insisted that Gbagbo should bring rebels into the cabinet, and head a government of national unity. The agreement was signed by the Ivorian government, the opposition and the rebels on 24 January, then promptly rejected days later, as thousands of government supporters in Abidjan poured out on to the streets, to burn French flags and to call for Gbagbo to refuse French-backed deals with the rebels.

Since then, the power-sharing agreement has been only hesitantly enforced, as Gbagbo has sought to regain control over the country in spite of French pressure for him to accommodate the rebels. In July 2003, war was declared officially over at a ceremony in the presidential palace, but only a few months later the rebels pulled out of the government. Instability has continued, and after serious clashes in March 2004 between government and opposition supporters in Abidjan, the United Nations sent off its first contingent of peacekeepers as part of the UNOCI (United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire) mission.

From the beginning, and especially since the signing of the Marcoussis agreement, it has been difficult for France to portray itself as the neutral peacemaker. However, it is in the recent conflagration that French interests have really been exposed. As part of Gbagbo’s renewed offensive against the rebels, he launched air strikes, one of which resulted in the death of nine French soldiers. While it is still unconfirmed whether the attack was intentional, the response was swift. An hour after the bombing, French troops destroyed the two Russian-made Sukhoi warplanes that carried out the attack, along with five helicopter gunships, and France took over the airport.

Violent anti-French demonstrations blew up outside the airport and in Abidjan. In an attempt to stabilise the situation, France is now bringing in troops that were stationed in Gabon, and flying over 300 soldiers from the Istres military base in France. On the diplomatic front, the French ambassador called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, where the Ivory Coast was unanimously condemned and France declared its intention to table a resolution calling for an arms embargo. Chirac has even called upon Gbagbo to be a ‘man of unity’ – even though it was France’s intervention that gave the rebels de facto control of half of the country in the first place.

This began as a win-win opportunity to reassert French authority in West Africa, but is now turning dirty. Militarily, there is little danger: in one swoop France was able to virtually destroy the country’s air force. Existing military deployments in the region also make it easy for France to respond to any emergencies. What is at risk is French prestige. Ivorian politicians are beginning to speak of the French involvement as a ‘new Vietnam’, and promise to ‘inform the entire world that France has come to attack us’ (3).

For the moment Chirac can still enjoy the best of both worlds: standing up to the USA, and throwing his weight around in Francophone Africa. But if French forces find themselves in direct conflict with the Ivorian army, French militarism in West Africa will stand exposed. The fate of the Ivory Coast should serve as a sobering lesson for all those who look to France as a pacific alternative to American domination.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student in international politics, at St Johns College, Oxford.

(1) Chirac ‘snubs’ Allawi at EU talks, BBC News, 5 November 2004

(2) ‘France’s Influence Wanes in Ivory Coast’, Washington Post, Keith B Richburg, 4 February 2003

(3) ‘La Côte D’Ivoire sera un “Vietnam” pour la France, selon Mamadou Koulibali’, Le Monde, 7 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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