November 16, 2004


Ivory Coast casts doubt over Paris’s global policies: With nine soldiers dead and a former colony in chaos, the French have one simple question. Why? (Hugh Schofield, 11/14/04, Sunday Herald)

It was not supposed to have been like this. Five or so years ago the last Socialist government – but with the full support of the Gaullist Chirac – exercised a U-turn in policy to Africa.

Gone, supposedly, were the days of sending in the troops to prop up dubious dictators with dubious financial links to political parties in Paris. “Francafrique,” the network of interests and collusions devised under Charles de Gaulle’s continental fixer Jacques Foccart, was a dis credited anachronism, and instead came in notions of accountability and co- operation on the road to democratic reform.

The coup attempt in Ivory Coast in September 2002 was a case study. In the old days, Paris would have sent in a few Foreign Legion troop- transporters from Chad to back up President Laurent Gbagbo, who was, after all, chosen in what was claimed to be a democratic election. Instead France decided that the rebels under Guillaume Sorro had a point.

Gbagbo was engaged in a policy of ethnic favouritism which was indefensible, Chirac decided, so he should be persuaded to give ground. French policy forced through the Marcoussis Accords of January 2003 under which the two sides were supposed to embark on national reconciliation, and in the meantime thousands of French troops “interposed them selves” – in Chirac’s words – to patrol the shaky ceasefire line.

Almost two years later and the wheel seems to have come full circle. A phone call from the Élysée Palace in the early afternoon of Saturday November 6 was all it took to put France straight back into interventionist mode.

In an air-raid conducted by Gbgabo’s two newly acquired Sukhoi-25 Frogfoot fighter-bombers, eight French troops and an American civilian had been killed at an encampment in the rebel-held town of Bouake. A ninth later died. French intelligence indicated the attack was deliberate. The jets, which had been bombing rebel targets for two days, were piloted by mercenaries from Belarus, and made several passes over the encampment before striking. French flags and markings were everywhere.

Within two hours three Mirage jets from a French base in Chad had destroyed the two Sukhoi-25s on the ground at the airport of the capital Yamoussoukro. Five attack helicopters were also wrecked, as well as Gbagbo’s own personal helicopter which, in a supreme indignity, was struck in the gardens of the presidential palace.

After that came the descent into chaos – the riots and looting in Abidjan, the French reinforcements, the evacuations and the stories now emerging of rape and brutality. Only by the end of last week was there a semblance of normality returning in Abidjan – but by every account it was a frail apparition. The truth is that more than 40 years after independence the French are loathed in Ivory Coast today far more than they ever were in colonial days. The blame may lay squarely with an ignoble search for scapegoats in another failed African nation-state, but a triumph for French foreign policy it certainly isn’t.

As many commentators are pointing out in Paris, France’s post-Francafrique doctrine badly needs definition. At the moment it is a wandering compass-needle of engagement and non-engagement, whose precise position at any given moment is the sole prerogative of the head of state.

With his overarching powers in foreign policy, it was Chirac who determined that 4000 French troops should take part in Operation Unicorn to separate the warring parties. It was a genuine sign of French commitment to its former colony, even though it left the troops dangerously exposed. And then it was Chirac who single-handedly decided it was time for US-style unilateral military intervention a week ago. Again, it was a genuine expression of anger and no doubt fully justifiable, but it left the troops even more exposed.

“Hardly anyone here in France understands what our policies in Ivory Coast are supposed to be,” Le Figaro newspaper argued last week. “Do we want to re-occupy to impose democracy? Do we just want to consolidate the ceasefire line? Or is it merely a question of ‘defending French interests’? Nobody knows.”

Merely a question of pretending to be a great power.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2004 6:51 AM

Repeat after me, France:

The Sun King is no longer on the throne.
Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer on the throne.
Richileu is no longer the brains behind the throne.
You are no longer The Superpower, if you ever were one in the first place.
The universe cannot have more than one center, and you're not it.

Posted by: Ken at November 16, 2004 12:34 PM

But they are the heirs of Charlemagne! They gave us French fries, French toast, and French cut green beans! Notre Dame isn't just a university in Indiana you know.

Posted by: Philip at November 17, 2004 1:57 PM

Philip: No.
Ken: Yes.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 17, 2004 6:52 PM

The new French national anthem: "Grand Illusion" by Styx.

Posted by: Dave at November 17, 2004 10:06 PM