Ivory Coast troubles

Yesterday, when I was talking to one of my France-based sisters over the phone, she told me my 21 year old nephew Stanislas, who’s been training as a helicopter combat pilot in the French Army, may well be sent off to the Ivory Coast soon as part of the 4,000 strong French troops who are there. It brought home even more sharply something that I’ve been keeping an eye on for quite a few years–and even more closely in recent months–the policy of France in its -ex-colonies, the Francophonie, what’s been termed as ‘a more muscular version of the Commonwealth’.
Many people in English-speaking countries, particularly those who opposed the war in Iraq, are not aware of just how much actual French policy and practice contradicts its stated aims in the UN debates over the invasion of Iraq. It’s very much ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ The French have never hesitated to intervene unilaterally and decisively in many African conflicts, including Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, and Chad. The French President can intervene personally and directly without the say-so of anybody else, including Parliament(and indeed the airstrike on the Ivorian airforce was one such unilateral decision); his powers are much more sweeping and wide-ranging than the US President’s in such a matter and they rarely bother to consult the French people in any way, or any outside agencies. However, the UN has traditionally ‘allowed’ France to get away with policing West Africa, and either provided France with a figleaf, as in the case of Ivory Coast, or else turned a blind eye, as in the case of ousting the Caligula of Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
So what’s going on in the Ivory Coast? The current crisis, with terrorised French expatriates fleeing the country in just the clothes they stood up in, machete-wielding mobs howling through the streets,dozens of –mainly Ivorians–killed and hundreds injured, and President Laurent Ggabo saying France’s intervention was ‘an act of war’, began a week or so ago, when the Ivorian government broke an 18-month ceasefire and attacked rebel-held posts in the north, in the process also killing 9 French soldiers who were there as part of a ‘peacekeeping’ force, and an American aid worker. France’s retaliation was swift; it immediately bombed the Government airforce base, destroying all of its planes and helicopters.
President Chirac grandly said that the French Govt was ‘determined to prevent either the spread of anarchy or the rise of a fascist regime’, but a recent Figaro editorial commented that many French people themselves were confused about the aim of their Government in Ivory Coast (and indeed, in all African theatres): ‘Do we want to re-occupy the country to impose democracy? Do we just want to consolidate the ceasefire? Or is it a question of defending French interests?’

But this is only the most recent flashpoint in a depressing and blood-soaked history of turmoil. The recent troubles of the Ivory Coast, once one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations, started in 1999, when the country erupted in civil war. Like in Sudan, the war is principally between the mainly Christian and animist south, and the mainly Muslim north. But it’s also confused by the fact that there’s a nationalistic aspect involved. The notion of ‘Ivoirite’ (or ‘Ivorianness’) was popularised in the 90’s after some Ivorian politicians began pushing for people only of Ivorian origin to be allowed to stand for election. Thiswas mainly due to a kind of Fiji-style ethnic panic. Because of the fact it was so prosperous, and offered lots of employment, Ivory Coast has over the decades attracted a huge number of immigrants, mainly from the countries to its north, and mainly Muslim, slowly turning the once very Christian/animist country into a society split in two, on religious grounds as well as ethnic ones. It’s estimated 26 percent of Ivorian residents are of immigrant origin. Not all are Muslim, however; immigrants from Burkina Faso, for instance, tend to be predominantly Catholic.
The civil war raged for years, causing thousands of death, and a million people displaced from their homes. In 2002, the northern rebels attempted a coup; and though this failed, the result was virtual partition of the country. At various times, France was in there trying to get the sides to negotiate with each other, and in 2003, brokered a ceasefire and peace deal, at the same time sending in thousands of its troops under the blue helmets of the ‘Smurfs’, as the UN peace-keeping forces are often called. It was these troops who were attacked by President Ggabo’s forces, and who then retaliated–throwing into doubt of course the whole ‘peace-keeping’ aspect of the UN force. Now Ggabo, who has barricaded himself in his palace, inciting the southerners to rise up against the French, causing the scenes you might have seen on Tv or in newspapers, has accused France of ‘siding with the rebels’ and of plotting to oust him. Though there’s a series of crisis talks being held in Nigeria–with six West African countries, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo and Gabon taking part–and in South Africa–the Ivorian rebels–the Ivorian President refused to attend any of the talks. Sanctions are being talked about, an arms embargo, travel bans, and more. And everyone is holding their breath, wondering whether the Ivorian conflict is going to re-seed the horrible wars in neighbouring countries, wars that have only just recently ground to an exhausted halt–such as in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Meanwhile, France thrashes around in a situation that should give it pause for thought, given its Government’s constant harping on how many mistakes the US made in Iraq. And my nephew waits for the call-up that may come anytime in the next few weeks or months.

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sophie, this is the most recent instance of what the French have been finding recently – their influence and the legitimacy of their military interventions in their former colonies and their African sphere of influence is no longer automatically accepted. France sent a batallion to parade around in Rwanda in 1994 to stop the massacres – something which had worked before – but unfortunately to no effect on that tragic occasion.

It’s interesting, though, that people in France are starting to question the French imperial mission.

However, I don’t think that this aspect of French foreign policy disqualified the French government from opposing the Iraq War in the Security Council – the grounds for that opposition were not so much its unilateralism (indeed had Bush’s resolution been accepted it could not have been described so) but rather the need to allow the weapons inspection process to proceed in an orderly fashion towards a result. Germany took an identical position without any post-colonial entanglements. The French had an economic interest in Iraq, but governments are rarely without national interests in the less noble sense of the word.

2022 years ago

Mark, of course the French aren’t disqualified from commenting on Iraq–it’s just a rather pointed irony. And I don’t think it’s principally worries about weapons inspections or even economic interests that motivated their stance on Iraq–rather, a/a desire to make sure the US stayed under the control of the UN (and by extension France, as a top member of the Security Council; b/making out to the Arab world that France was its ‘friend’, given that they have a large Arab population within their borders which they don’t want to stir up and given the fact that Alegerian terrorists have already targetted France. They didn’t want to intervene in MiddleEast no matter how hideous the tyranny because it’s no West Africa, which is both seen as their sphere of interest and a much easier nut to crack than Arab countries. But as you say just parading around now doesn’t impress the Africans anyway, so the stakes have to constantly rise.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, Sophie, that’s all fair enough. I think any country usually has multiple motivations for any act of foreign policy. There’s no doubt that historically from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and through the de facto division of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1918, the French have also seen the Middle East as part of their sphere of influence. Hence also the recent questioning in France of the value of French “credibility” with the Arab leadership given that this influence was not sufficient to free the French hostages in Iraq. France always also seems to have glory as a motivating factor in foreign policy.

It’s not perhaps dissimilar to the UK – the continuation of an imperial policy post-Imperialism.

Alan E Brain
2022 years ago

Sophie, Merci Beaucoup for an excellent summary of the Cote D’Ivoir.

Re : Iraq : The reason that France objected was because people high up in the French Government were bought and paid for. We have the receipts now. There’s also an element of France wanting to ally with the Muslim world to counterbalance the “hyper-puissance”. But mainly, it was because of Total-Fina-Elf and the French Economy (for some) , and really, really huge bribes for others.

Germany, on the other hand played it straight – or rather, did so for purely political rather than financial resaons.

Re : Ivory Coast : I don’t really care whether France’s motives are selfish, altruistic, or anywhere in between. I don’t even care if they’re supporting the Muslim north to gain “brownie points” with the Arab world. The question is, will they do some good? Restore law, restore peace, foster democracy, that type of thing? Because if they will, then more power to them. And if not, may their socks rot (though in any event, may the poor poilus on the front line come home safely – your nephew included.)