An advertising campaign has been launched in the United States protesting French actions in Ivory Coast.  Sunday, an ad in the New York Times accused France of sabotaging the Ivorian government of President Laurent Gbagbo in order to protect French commercial interests dating to colonial times.  Just who is sponsoring the ad campaign is not clear, but the initiative has caught the attention of French diplomats in the United States.

The headline on the full-page advertisement read: "The French Connection - Why the U.N. Vote on Ivory Coast is a Sham!"  It was a reference to last month's unanimous vote in the Security Council that imposed an arms embargo on the West African nation.

The measure was taken after Ivorian warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers in northern Ivory Coast.  France retaliated by destroying the African country's air force.

The ad says the arms embargo will hinder efforts to defend and unite Ivory Coast, and accuses France of aiding northern rebels.  It alleges France's aim is to undermine President Gbagbo, who has called for reducing French influence in his nation's economy.

But who is behind this message?  At the bottom of the ad, it lists a previously unheard of group, "Friends of Democratic Governments."  It also provides a Washington address and a toll-free number.

The recording repeats itself in French.

Unable to reach anyone at the number listed, VOA probed the address provided and found something other than "Friends of Democratic Governments."

The Kamber group is one of Washington's premier public relations firms.  Vice President Don McClure says Kamber produced the ad for clients who want to draw attention to injustice.

"You have to reach out to opinion leaders," he said.  "Here we have a democratic president in Ivory Coast who is being undermined by the French government.  The purpose of the campaign is awareness."

The services of Washington public relations firms, not to mention full-page ads in the New York Times, do not come cheaply.  Who is sponsoring the campaign?  Mr. McClure would only say they are believers in President Gbagbo.

"Some [are] in the Ivory Coast," he added.  "A couple [are] in London.  We do not list the names of the supporters or sponsors of the ad because we know very well how vindictive the French are."

If the sponsors hoped to get the attention of the diplomatic community, they have succeeded.

"This ad was full of inaccuracies," said Nathalie Loiseau is a spokesperson for the French Embassy in Washington.  "[It] is not France who decided to have an embargo on Ivory Coast.  This is the entire international community embodied by the [U.N.] Security Council.  And, of course, the arms embargo applies to every possible Ivorian party -- not just the Ivorian army, but every militia, every group."

Ms. Loiseau adds that French peacekeepers in Ivory Coast are performing U.N.-mandated tasks similar to those undertaken by British troops in Sierra Leone and American forces in Liberia.  She says Ivory Coast deserves better than a civil war.

But Ivorian officials have complained that France is practically a party to their nation's conflict, and is acting in its own interest, not those of Ivory Coast or the international community.  At the Kamber Group, Don McClure says the government's complaints have been ignored by the international community, and backers of the government are justified in attempting to publicize their cause.

"For a constitutional government, a democratically elected president to have no support in the United Nations or even in the African Union - it means that their story has not gotten out at all," said Mr. McClure.

But Africa-watcher George Ayittey at American University in Washington says allegations of French meddling in Ivorian affairs are a smokescreen designed to hide a different reality.

"The central issue in Ivory Coast is one of power sharing. [President] Gbagbo is searching for some kind of a pretext to avoid sharing power with the Muslim north [of Ivory Coast]," he noted.

Professor Ayittey says, so long as the politics of exclusion prevail, Ivory Coast will continue to suffer turmoil, with or without high-powered advertising campaigns.