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France Abandons Hands-Off Policy On Africa Conflicts: Some Fear Ivory Coast Quagmire

By Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, Saturday 4 January 2003

PARIS, Jan. 3—A little more than five years after France declared a new African policy aimed at ending direct military intervention in Africa, the new government in Paris is sharply escalating its armed presence in Ivory Coast, a former colony newly convulsed by civil conflict.

About 2,500 French troops have reached the WesFt African country—up from a force of 700 three months ago—as part of Operation Unicorn, France’s most ambitious African operation since it sent troops to Rwanda in 1994 during the genocide of members of the Tutsi tribe by Hutu militants.

France was so roundly criticized for that mission, which was widely seen as aiding its former Hutu allies, that officials in the then-Socialist government here vowed a hands-off approach to Africa’s future civil wars.

But now French troops are going into Africa with the announced goal of helping to enforce a shaky cease-fire between the Ivorian army and rebel forces that have seized control of large swaths of the country’s north and west since hostilities broke out in September after a failed coup.

In December, French troops fired tank-mounted cannons at rebels to stop an advance. Other clashes, including a government helicopter assault Tuesday on a rebel-held fishing village that killed at least 11 civilians, showed the difficulty of monitoring a truce and highlighted the danger of French forces being dragged into an open-ended African civil war.

As France has sent more soldiers, its stated mission has repeatedly shifted. First it was evacuation of French civilians, then logistical support to the government, then, most recently, enforcement of an Oct. 17 cease-fire. There is still ambiguity as to whether French troops are supporting the embattled president, Laurent Gbagbo. French officials call him the legitimately elected leader but say they are remaining neutral.

Moreover, the French are entering Ivory Coast without a clearly defined strategy for getting out. There is a true risk of a quagmire, said Jean-Francois Bayart, an Africa specialist and former director of the Center for International Study and Research in Paris.

Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French International Relations Institute said: There’s a lot of anxiety because they don’t know when it will be over. It can last for years.

A French official here, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed. I’m worried, very worried, he said. Gbagbo wants us to fight the war in his place. And the rebels are more and more furious with us. He added, We are in another Vietnam.

French newspapers have begun writing about the African trap. But in general, the abandonment of the hands-off Africa policy announced in 1997 is occurring with little public criticism or debate. Among politicians, even the Socialists—architects of the old nonintervention policy—largely support the policy crafted by the new government led by President Jacques Chirac.

Many French analysts said the change reflects the unique status of Ivory Coast, a former French colony that maintained strong economic, cultural and military links with France after independence in 1960, including allowing a permanent French military presence. Until September, it was spared the upheaval that has devastated many of its neighbors.

Among the chief concerns driving French policy, Africa experts said, was the presence of 20,000 French expatriates in Ivory Coast, most of them in the administrative center, Abidjan, and in San Pedro on the coast. France wants to stabilize the situation and avoid a huge and costly evacuation.

The priority for France is to avoid a battle for Abidjan and San Pedro, where many of these expatriates live, said Bayart. He compared them to the French settlers in Algeria who had to be taken to France as refugees after Algeria won independence in 1962. The people now in danger were born in Ivory Coast, or all their professional lives were spent there. They have no attachments here in France, he said.

France also sees its job as keeping Ivory Coast out of the ranks of failed states, French Africa-watchers and other specialists say. The alternative would be a policy of neglect—and then France would find itself accused of standing aside and doing nothing.

We need to be good to our African friends, said Justin Vaisse, a French political scientist who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. France cannot afford—and the international community cannot afford—to let Ivory Coast, which was one of the pillars of stability in West Africa, fall apart.

Francois Heisbourg, a French military affairs specialist, said: If we do not do this, we are allowing a legally elected government to be overthrown, which is a terrible message to send. . . . It’s one hell of a mess.

But Gbagbo’s legitimacy is in question. He was elected president in 2000 with a plurality after a flawed election from which a principal rival, Alassane Ouattara, was barred on the grounds that he was born in neighboring Burkina Faso. That election sparked the country’s instability, and critics have accused Gbagbo of striving not to reconcile the divided country but to stifle opposition.

Gbagbo, who at first accused France of aiding the rebels, is now using the French presence to bolster his own claim of legitimacy. When French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin visited him in Abidjan at the end of November, Gbagbo greeted him warmly, calling him by his first name and saying, You are there, France is there.

Gbagbo and various government spokesmen have also claimed repeatedly that the rebels were being assisted by neighboring Liberia and Burkina Faso, and have pressed France to publicly acknowledge the outside involvement, which could open the way for direct French military help under the terms of a military pact signed when Ivory Coast became independent. France has denounced all outside interference in the conflict.

Gbagbo, meanwhile, has employed white South African mercenaries; two Mi-24 helicopters that attacked the fishing village were reportedly flown by hired pilots.

Chirac dispatched de Villepin, the foreign minister, to Abidjan again today to try to break the impasse. After meeting with de Villepin, Gbagbo was quoted as saying that mercenaries would leave the country on Saturday.

Moreau Defarges said the French government was backing Gbagbo not with enthusiasm, but because there is no alternative.

Even as Gbagbo seeks French support, rebels in essence are calling on France to help their side, urging aggressive enforcement of the cease-fire. Rebel leaders are demanding that France assume the responsibility it has given itself and are threatening to give their forces a carte blanche to cross the lines for new general offensive in retaliation for what they call repeated cease-fire violations by the government.

In an interview published today in the newspaper Le Parisien, de Villepin said, France doesn’t have any other camp except the one of peace and national reconciliation. He said there was no miracle remedy, but that a peaceful solution would require a collective effort.