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Ivory Coast Conflict Becomes Major Test for French Diplomacy - 2002-10-13


The army rebellion in Ivory Coast is putting severe pressure on France's new policy of non-military intervention in Africa. Rebel leaders and the government both complain that Paris' lack of action is helping the other side.

French diplomacy has been put to the test in Ivory Coast, where the military rebellion enters its fourth-week. The rebels control the northern half of Ivory Coast, which is predominantly Muslim.

Northerners have long complained that they have been excluded from power by the mainly Christian south. The clashes have produced thousands of refugees and international aid agencies predict a "large scale humanitarian crisis."

France dispatched more than 1,000 troops to its former colony when the rebellion broke out. Their task was carefully defined: to protect French and other foreigners living in the West African nation. Paris was anxious not to get involved with a dispute that it claimed was internal.

But inevitably, the French contingent has been drawn into the conflict. Paris agreed to provide logistical support to President Laurent Gbagbo's troops. On Friday, the French Foreign Ministry went a step further, announcing it formally backed Mr. Gbagbo as the country's democratically-elected leader.

Despite this support, Mr. Gbagbo has ignored French appeals to accept a cease-fire agreement, and the state-owned media has accused the French press of "disinformation."

Jean-Francois Medard is a specialist at the Center for African Studies in Bordeaux. He is among a number of experts who believe the French government is caught in a difficult situation in Ivory Coast.

"If it supports Laurent Gbagbo, then the North will criticize them. If they do not support Laurent Gbagbo the south with criticize. And since it has not chosen a side, it is criticized from both sides," he said.

France's doctrine of non-military intervention in African conflicts had been gradually forged during the past decade.

Paris managed to keep its distance from Ivory Coast's 1999 coup, when General Robert Guei ousted the country's civilian president, Henri Konan Bedie. France also refused to intervene in recent conflicts elsewhere in Africa, in Congo-Brazzaville and in Madagascar.

Earlier this year, the French government turned back a plane carrying French mercenaries bound for Madagascar.

But Ivorians living in France say they are disappointed with France's hands-off stance when it comes to the current conflict. Decho Gada, vice president of an Ivorian social group near Paris, says France may be a democracy, but it has failed to help the democratically-elected government of President Gbagbo. He says it is hard to see which side France supports.

Richard Banegas, editor of Africa Policy magazine in Paris, says France is locked into what he calls a "no-no" policy toward Africa. He says France does not want to control African politics, nor does it wish to be totally indifferent. The result, he says, is inaction.

In the case of Ivory Coast, Mr. Banegas says, Paris will face a dilemma if reports prove to be true that Burkina Faso is helping the rebels. Paris has close ties with the Burkina government, but one of its 1960's defense agreements calls for French military assistance to Ivory Coast in the event of foreign intervention.

But since the 1960's, when the former French colonies became independent, both France and Africa have changed drastically.

During those years, France has faced a barrage of public criticism at home and in Africa for backing corrupt African leaders, and for condoning questionable practices of French companies operating in Africa. Some of the scandals, including allegations of illegal arms sales to Angola, are under investigation.

As a result, Mr. Banegas says, younger Africans have lost their respect for France and other former colonial powers. He says young Ivorians dream now of traveling to the United States or elsewhere, all the more so since I has become increasingly difficult to obtain visas to study and work in France.

But African expert Daniel Bourmand believes Africans are still divided in how they view France. He says some elite and ordinary Africans consider France an obstacle to democracy and economic development on the continent. But he says others view France as the only Western power interested in the continent's well-being, and capable of doing something positive for Africa.

Views about Africa have changed in France as well. French leader Jacques Chirac, who has paid several visits to the continent as president, tells African leaders that Paris remains a loyal friend.

But bilateral aid to Africa has declined steadily in recent years. And increasingly, France is coordinating its African policies with other European partners.

The Ivory Coast turmoil has been among the top stories in French news. But as Mr. Bourmand notes, France's role in the conflict has sparked very little debate at home.

That, he says, is because Africa is no longer a top political priority for France. The big debates now turn around France's role in the European Union and the economy. As a result, he believes, French politicians are largely uninterested in the Ivory Coast conflict.

But Mr. Bourmand and other experts believe the situation may change, if the Ivorian clashes intensify. At that point, they say, France will have to choose between its new, hands-off policy, and its legacy of intervention in Africa.

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