AMERICANS have been getting a crash course in French foreign policy lately. For further insight, it may be instructive to cast a glance at Ivory Coast, a charming and until recently peaceful country on Africa's west coast. Dissatisfied with the policies of the democratically elected president, Laurent Gbagbo, the Quai d'Orsay, according to Ivoirian sources, engineered a violent intrusion by "rebels" from neighboring Burkina Faso and Liberia, then in late January convened a peace conference in a Parisian suburb at which President Gbagbo was advised to turn over the defense and interior ministries to his adversaries. It's as if Canada funded a gang war in New York and then told the city to name a latter-day John Gotti police commissioner.

The French relinquished their African empire in the late 1950s, when Charles de Gaulle decided on a strategy aiming at the leadership of Europe rather than the maintenance of overseas colonies. But the temptation to have it both ways was great, and the French set up what were, essentially, protection rackets in their ex-colonies, guaranteeing the security of the strongmen they put in place in return for sweetheart deals at all levels of the economy. At the same time, said strongmen were encouraged to share their own rake-offs with French politicians. Until very recently, when they finally encountered disapproving magistrates, French figures as diverse as Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (son of the late president) and the Gaullist notable Charles Pasqua had their hands deep in the tills of what was variously called Françafrique and the chasse gardée (the reservation).

Ivory Coast became the centerpiece of the system; within a few years after independence in 1960, Abidjan and environs had more French residents than in the colonial period. At present the permanent French population numbers some 20,000, with another 5,000 transients on any given day. They run cocoa and coffee plantations, banks and car dealerships, schools and, discreetly, until the late 1980s, government ministries. Ivoirians say the French act as if they own the place--which to a considerable extent they do.

The French investment was noted by international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank, as well as by the State Department. Ivory Coast was the great success story, stable and modernizing, symbolized by its Manhattan-inspired skyline. Longtime president Houphouet-Boigny was praised for his wisdom and tolerance and his ability to maintain order. It is true that Houphouet refrained from playing the "ethnic card" that so many African despots found irresistible, and he succeeded in attracting entrepreneurial talent and hard-working types from up and down the rich, but politically unstable, west African coast. Still, Ivoirian writer Ahmadou Kourouma described him as without mercy toward his opponents.

In a sense, the French enjoyed a more enviable position in the neo-colonial years than in the colonial period, since they had the wealth without any obligation to improve the general welfare. In the 1990s, they decided to reduce their subsidies to Ivory Coast, as to the other West African countries, without lowering the profits they reaped from the commercial arrangements, written in Paris, that kept the country's considerable wealth passing through their hands. The most significant reduction of French aid was the withdrawal of subsidies to the Communauté financière africaine, the CFA. The result was the sudden collapse of the CFA franc, used in most of Francophone West Africa, at a time when there was a general depression in the commodities market due to over-supply.

This might have been a salutary shock, forcing the Africans to take charge of their own economies and adopt a realistic view of international competition. But when the Ivoirians suggested the quo for this quid might be new commercial arrangements ending de facto subsidies for French firms, the French shrugged. President Henri Konan Bedié, who had succeeded Houphouet in 1993, was in the pocket of the French. Bedié proved, after a few years, to be more corrupt and incompetent than was tolerable. A supposedly more competent technocrat, an ex-IMF official and former prime minister named Alassane Ouattara, presented himself, with French encouragement, as a viable replacement. Bedié fell to a coup led by a singularly stupid, if brave, general by the name of Robert Guei in 1999. It cannot be proven that Guei was a cat's-paw, but there was widespread surprise, not to say consternation, when he refused to relinquish power.

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.

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