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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.