The Magazine

Both a Crime and a Blunder

How French foreign policy is destroying the Ivory Coast.

Feb 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 23 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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While officially deploring the first military coup in what had been thought a uniquely stable country, the French congratulated Guei quietly and assured Ouattara that his turn was next. General Guei, however, announced new elections. This posed a problem for Ouattara, a native of Burkina Faso ineligible to run for elective office in Ivory Coast. African affairs experts in Washington deplored the raising of "tribal" issues in Ivory Coast and warned that a non-Ivoirian should be allowed to run, regardless of the law.

Who were the Ivoirians to determine their own constitutional rules for presidential eligibility? With their eye on Ouattara, the French too late noticed the rise of a genuine democrat, longtime oppositionist Laurent Gbagbo, to whom the voters gave the presidency in October 2000. Gbagbo's supporters prevented General Guei from annulling the election. Ouattara appealed his exclusion, but it was upheld by the constitutional court. Gbagbo, a Catholic of leftist background belonging to the Bete people of the south, urged Ouattara's followers, primarily in the north, to calm down and join the political system.

Paris immediately began questioning Gbagbo's legitimacy. Against that backdrop, Gbagbo advised the French in early 2002 that the web of commercial ties between the two countries should be re-negotiated in view of new economic realities, including the withdrawal of French subsidies and American efforts to draw African countries into the global trade system. In September 2002, Guei again attempted a coup, and was killed. Ouatarra fled to the French embassy, then was spirited out of the country. Simultaneously, rebel groups the government believes to be armed by Burkina Faso took over key towns in the northern half of the country, while other insurgents, believed to be Liberian gangs of the type that have devastated Sierra Leone and Liberia in recent years, entered from the west.

France may or may not have banked on a quick military takeover, but the Ivoirian army, though forced to abandon several northern cities, prepared to stand and fight in the south, where most of the population is and where Gbagbo is wildly popular. Citizens' committees, called patriots, while possibly engaging in unjustifiable acts of vandalism and vigilantism against long-established immigrant populations in Abidjan, have led demonstrations in support of the beleaguered president. In the course of these, they have appealed to the United States to put pressure on the Quai d'Orsay to let their country be. The White House, preoccupied with other matters, has gone along with the Marcoussis accords, named for the Paris suburb where they were drawn up in late January. Tony Blair too has expressed support for French policy.

Surely Africa does not need another country descending into civil war. Already out of Ivory Coast's population of 18 million, a million have been displaced by the fighting and insecurity. Elected on a platform of economic growth and democratic reform, Laurent Gbagbo does not see himself as a war president. So far, he has resisted French pressure to give key ministries to the rebels, but last week he seemed to be groping for a compromise that would allow him to say he hadn't given in to blackmail.

Roger Kaplan is the author of "Conservative Socialism," recently published by Transaction, on contemporary France.