Why France must tread carefully in Ivory Coast

French soldier in Abidjan France recently closed its military base in Abidjan but supplied troops to UN

When troops entered the grounds of the presidential residence where Laurent Gbagbo had been holding out, defended by his die-hard loyalist forces, it was crucial for the future of Alassane Ouattara's presidency that those making this final breakthrough were from Ivory Coast - and not France, the former colonial power.

There is no doubt that bombardments by French and United Nations forces played an essential role in destroying the heavy weapons that had enabled Mr Gbagbo to resist for so long.

But while some internet rumours have claimed the French played a bigger role, Paris has been categoric in formally stating that at no time did its forces enter either Mr Gbagbo's residence or the surrounding gardens.

Such details are more than the small currency of minute-by-minute news surrounding this dramatic event.

Mr Ouattara needed to show that, ultimately, his own Republican Forces were capable of making that final entry and taking prisoner the rival who has refused to accept the legitimacy of his victory in the second round of the presidential election on 28 November 2010.

'Westernised'

For ever since his entry into domestic politics in the 1990s, the man who is now Ivory Coast's new president has had to fight off accusations of being too Westernised.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet (L) speaks near CEMA admiral Edouard Guillaud during a press conference on April 11, 2011 in Paris France has insisted that the UN has been leading the operation in Ivory Coast, rather than France

Married to a French woman and at ease in international capitals after two stints at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - where he rose to become a deputy managing director - Mr Ouattara was painted by Mr Gbagbo as a protege of Paris and Washington.

This theme was also a none-too-subtle means of reviving the old challenges to Ivorian identity that opponents used to deploy to block his path until questions of citizenship and political rights for northerners were finally resolved in a painstaking electoral registration process.

In winning the polls in November, Mr Ouattara shook off the accusation that he could not win acceptance from ordinary Ivorians.

But over the past 10 days of military confrontation he has struggled to show that he could finally bring Mr Gbagbo's resistance to an end.

France-Ivory Coast: A troubled history

  • 1893-1960: French colony
  • 1960-93: Close relations maintained
  • 20,000 French citizens in Ivory Coast
  • French military base in Abidjan - since closed
  • Currency pegged to franc, then euro
  • 2000-10: Relations worsen under Gbagbo
  • 2004: French citizens and economic interests attacked in Abidjan by Gbagbo supporters
  • 2011: French involved in Gbagbo capture

Monday's arrest by Republican Forces may start to change that perception.

For France, the handling of this closing chapter has also been sensitive.

Mr Gbagbo has presented himself as the man who has stood up to interference by Paris, the African who plays by African rules and not those of the Western outsider.

French stakes

So Paris could not afford to be perceived as a former colonial power interfering unilaterally to remove this unco-operative figure.

It was essential for the French that they were acting at the request of the UN.

The relationship between France and Ivory Coast has deep roots that were actually reinforced after independence: the "father of the Ivorian nation", President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, transformed his country into an agricultural export power and the financial and services hub of West Africa through a close economic partnership with French interests.

Ivory Coast is the largest economy of the eight-country western franc zone, whose CFA franc currency was pegged to the French franc, and latterly, the euro.

At one stage more than 20,000 French people were settled in the country, many on a long-term basis.

People celebrate news of Mr Gbagbo's capture in Abidjan's Ange district, 11 April Many in Ivory Coast have been celebrating the arrest of Mr Gbagbo

French commodity houses played a major role in the cocoa and coffee trade; French banks used Abidjan as a key regional hub. French advisers were present in parts of government and key economic sectors.

After Mr Houphouet-Boigny's death in 1993, the partnership lost a degree of political momentum. But French involvement remained profound; the privatisation opened new doors to French investors in key sectors.

Indeed, even after the tension of 2004 - when Mr Gbagbo's Young Patriot youth militants specifically targeted French residents through a campaign of looting and intimidation - Abidjan remained home for many thousands of French citizens.

That is why Paris has had to provide protection for so many over recent weeks.

The French military presence has also been significant. Originally established under the aegis of a bilateral defence partnership, it has been more contentious over the past decade of conflict and national partition.

New footing?

Start Quote

Mr Ouattara will want to ensure that he is seen to be a sovereign leader who establishes a relationship of mutual respect with Paris, escaping old cliches about post-colonial dependency”

End Quote Paul Melly Africa analyst

The French troops, operating as the Licorne force, provided the heavy muscle in support of the UN mission in Ivory Coast.

And Mr Gbagbo repeatedly sought to mobilise his own political support by stirring up popular anger at what he portrayed as a neo-colonial presence.

France has much at stake in the future of Ivory Coast, which remains a strategically important partner in West Africa.

But because of the difficult history of the past decade, both Paris and the new Ouattara government will want to put the relationship on a new footing.

This could well mean reducing the military presence as soon as security conditions permit. Mr Ouattara will draw on his international friendships, on both sides of the Atlantic, to mobilise aid for national recovery and reconstruction.

But he will want to ensure that he is seen to be a sovereign leader who establishes a relationship of mutual respect with Paris, escaping old cliches about post-colonial dependency.

That will suit the French too: they need to ensure that their continued relations with a country that is one of the most important economies in West Africa are seen in a positive light by both Ivorians and their neighbours.

Paul Melly is a specialist in French-speaking Africa, based at the London-based Chatham House think-tank.

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