|A protester holds a placard denouncing French President Jacques Chirac in Abidjan, Ivory Coast (File photo - Nov. 18, 2004)|
"We don't want the French army in Ivory Coast anymore," said a young man at the main pro-government protest in the western town of Guiglo. Ivory Coast, he says, is not a French territory. "Go home!" he shouted.
Thousands have turned out for a march against the presence of around 5,000 French peacekeepers, who, along with a contingent from the United Nations, have helped enforce a tenuous cease-fire since a failed coup attempt sparked a brief civil war in late 2002.
The current mandate of the French peacekeeping mission expires next month.
The leader of the pro-government group, known as the Young Patriots, Charles Ble Goude, helped organize the demonstration in Guiglo, which is close to front lines and the scene of a recent attack by a southern militia.
"The French forces came here for peace. Now they've not established peace. They're killing people. They are stealing money. And then, for us, they've taken the place of the rebels now," he said. "So, they have to go back, because they failed. So, they have to go back, so that another force can replace them to establish peace. So, the reason why were protesting is, we want the French forces to leave the country, not because we want war, but because we think they are not doing properly the job for which they're here."
President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters in the south say French forces favor the rebels and are refusing to disarm them.
They also blame peacekeepers for the deaths of pro-Gbagbo protesters during demonstrations in Abidjan in November. Those protests followed government air strikes against rebel positions in the north that also killed nine French soldiers.
In the rebel controlled north, supporters of the French mission organized their own protests.
Thousands marched in the streets of the main rebel city, Bouake, waving French flags, and chanting, "The French army is strong. Let them stay."
Rebel spokesman Soul Tousoul says the French have honored their promise to keep peace in Ivory Coast. He says people in the north support their peacekeeping efforts, and hope the mandate is renewed so they can accomplish their mission.
French President Jacques Chirac said last month that the French military will not stay where it is not wanted. He said he wants the support of all parties, including the Ivorian government, if the mandate is to be renewed. President Gbagbo has yet to voice his support for a continued French peacekeeping operation, but some of his close political allies have called for the French mission to be terminated.