Influence of Paris comes under serious scrutiny




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 20 February 2003

President Jacques Chirac’s stated aim this week of “putting Africa again at the heart of France’s priorities” assumes that African countries are seeking such ties.

Since a failed coup in the Ivory Coast last September, this assumption has been tested more severely than at any other time since the mid-1990s.

The French have brokered a peace agreement with the national unity government called the Marcoussis accord – which nows stands as a litmus test of French influence in much of Africa.

With 20,000 French nationals living in the country before recent evacuations, as well as substantial French investment, Paris’s political influence is under serious scrutiny.

The challenge it faces has implications for both its relations with the Ivory Coast and the region as a whole.

On the regional level, French credibility on the continent was left in tatters when the close ties between Paris and the Rwandan regime, which launched the 1994 genocide, were exposed.

A year later, France’s passive attitude towards the violent overthrow of President Pascal Lissouba of Congo was widely criticised. Mr Lissouba’s government had looked favourably on US energy companies exploiting offshore oil reserves, much to the anger of French companies.

A successful uprising led by Congo’s former military dictator, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, was barely criticised in Paris, and French companies resumed their prime position once Mr Lissouba was overthrown.

In the Ivory Coast, President Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters are convinced that the demands now being put on the government by France are intended to bring down his administration.

They cite a personality clash between Mr Chirac and Mr Gbagbo, the latter being keen to extract Ivory Coast from the long-established stranglehold of French business interests.

Since France strongly criticised the presence of the now-departed foreign mercenaries on the government side, nearly 3,000 French troops are all that stand between Mr Gbagbo and the Liberian and Burkina Faso- backed rebel forces.

This has given France substantial leverage over the Ivorian government, and was instrumental in leading it to make major concessions to the rebels.

Despite wide popular support for Mr Gbagbo in the south, west and east of the country, the Marcoussis agreement saw him – in part because of his own ineptitude – cede the powerful ministries of defence and internal security to the rebels.

Critics say the rebels have been in effect rewarded for the slaughter they have unleashed in the country.

Mr Gbagbo is also under pressure to scrap a rule whereby individuals standing for the presidency must prove the Ivorian nationality of both parents.

Doing away with this requirement would allow Mr Gbagbo’s main political rival, Alassane Ouattara, to return from exile in France and stand.

The concessions France has encouraged the government to accept are portrayed in Paris as the minimum necessary if the rebel advance is to be halted. But among Mr Gbagbo’s supporters they are seen as unlikely to bring peace because the rebels have given little ground and continued to rampage through the country.

The prospects for implementing the shaky peace deal are uncertain, and French nationals living in Ivory Coast have criticised France for doing too little too late.

With its prize former colony facing catastrophe, its diplomatic efforts having yet to appear effective, and only the murderous rebel forces pleased with what the French-brokered deal has brought them, French officials will enter the Franco-African summit, which opens in Paris today, unable to show much for their efforts.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.