Will France rue its actions in Côte d’Ivoire?

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Thursday, 7 April 2011 13:11

Rumour and counter-rumour are swirling round the Presidential compound in the Ivorian capital Abidjan, as the stand-off between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara’s forces continues. French forces rescued the Japanese ambassador from his residence on 6 April. Not everyone is as pleased to see them, with anti-Sarcozy T-shirts being sported by protestors angry at a former colonial power flexing their muscles.

Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa interviewed The Africa Report‘s managing editor Nicholas Norbrook on the merits of a French-led intervention in Côte d’Ivoire

Under UN resolution 1975, a military intervention to save the lives of civilians has legitimacy, yet this conflict has been going on for months. What would convince France to take military action at this point?

There has been a plan to use French Special Forces to ‘exfiltrate’ Gbagbo out of Côte d’Ivoire since December, but France realised that it could not just charge into a former colony without causing serious harm to it’s international image.

France has been quite active on the issue for several months. However, lobbying the African Union in January, inviting South African President Zuma to Paris for a quiet chat, following which President Zuma appeared to have a Damascene anti-Gbagbo conversion. But it took the Gaddafi advance on Benghazi, and the French-led resolution in the Security Council to protect civilians there, to give France the diplomatic cover it needed to act in Côte d’Ivoire.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been quick to comment and even quicker to get involved militarily in both Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. But what is in it for the French and can they afford to partake in two military campaigns?

France’s army is the largest in Europe, at around 250,000 strong, and they already have a French military presence in Côte d’Ivoire from preceding violent episodes – the Licorne force, which supports the UN troops. Given the limited “boots on the ground” presence, and the predominance of air attacks, it is not too hard for them to sustain it, unlike the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There has also been a personalisation of foreign policy in France. President Sarkozy has been acting at the forefront of both these engagements.

But though it is tempting to see it as a leader in difficulty at home who reaches for the “grand geste” abroad, I am not convinced that this is happening here. It is more the case of the hyperactive president, who acts first without worrying too much about the consequences. Ironically, emulating the United States who [former French president Jacques] Chirac was so quick to criticise during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Gbagbo is perceived as an African nationalist, a proud intellectual, and one who is insistent on not giving outside powers control over post-colonial Côte d’Ivoire. He did lose the elections, but does overt French action in the country give credence to his argument?

The airstrikes by French and UN helicopters are helping to write Gbagbo’s script for him. He has always sought to paint Ouattara as supported by the West, much as President Robert Mugabe succesfully painted the opposition MDC as being financed by the “Imperialist Powers” of the UK and US.

So the sight of French Puma helicopters unleashing rounds into the presidential compound will help bolster Gbagbo’s case.

What it helpfully obscures, for Gbagbo, is the years of virulent and divisive hatred-mongering fostered by his ruling FPI [Ivorian Popular Front] party. This has pitted ethnicity against ethnicity, North against South, and has resulted in thousands of deaths. Very useful, then, to have a narrative that seems to transcend that, and bring back the glory years of the fight against the colonisers.

You see this in Libya with Gaddafi, and well as in Zimbabwe. Both Mugabe and Gaddafi have committed huge massacres against their peoples – for example, Operation Gukurahundi around Bulawayo.

How are neighbouring African countries likely to respond to French military intervention? Is the former coloniser’s bombing of a former colony’ not dangerous for France’s image?

That’s a question for France’s foreign minister, but I suspect he would point to the looming massacre in Benghazi and ask what France’s image would have been if it could have prevented it but failed to.

And pose the same question about the looming civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, where the epicentre would have been weeks of fighting in Abidjan, a city of six million.

The UN and France intervened as the violence intensified, but what about the AU? Would you say the AU is any closer to creating a template of effective, decisive action for cases in which presidents refuse to step down?

The AU was hamstrung over Libya, because of the huge Gaddafi funding that the institution recieves. When even the Arab League is quicker off the mark to denouce human rights violations, there is clearly a problem.

ECOWAS has been more active in Côte d’Ivoire. There seems to have been an anti-Gbagbo axis in Africa – mostly led by Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Others have been more circumspect, such as Ghana, warning against military intervention.

Political solutions are often more helpful over the long term than military ones, so perhaps it is right that the diplomatic solution was the one that ECOWAS has chosen, for the time being. And there are very sore memories of Nigerian soldiers in Liberia during the pacification of that country.

Intervention is always a sensitive issue with mediation the more preferable modus operandi to solving such crises. Do these events now set a precedent, or will this be a once-off?

There are already some precedents, some more successful than other – the UN in Congo, the US in Somalia.

Although we appear to be entering an era of more muscular diplomacy, this might be, as Gideon Rachman suggests, the last hurrah for interventionism. The coming powers – China, South Africa, Brazil, India – are very sceptical about the whole affair.

This conflict has profoundly affected ordinary Ivorians. Millions turned up the polls, voted, and then a stand-off ensued, resulting in mass displacement, killings and rape. How far will the events of the past five months set this country back?

One might ask how far has the last ten years have set the country back.

This has been a lost decade for Côte d’Ivoire, once again calling Zimbabwe to mind. It has fantastic potential, economically, but the trust that normally binds a country together in its quotidien has gone. The critical thing will be the endgame – will Gbagbo be turned into a martyr?

The Blé Goudé characters who have melted into the shadows will be back, avenging the victims of Duekoue – and the cycle could keep turning.

But with Ouattara now appearing as the French-backed candidate, he may find it hard to promote the national healing that absolutely has to happen for things to move forward. A truth and reconciliation style tribunal would be a step forward.

In many African countries, opposition parties often exist as “mere opposition” to the ruling party, without much of a policy alternative for the voting electorate. Has Ouattara brought anything significant to the table, or is this just another case of pushing personalities into office?

It is hard to see Ouattara as just a personality. In fact, in the war of populism, Ouattara has been thoroughly outplayed by the master of the demotic arts, Gbagbo.

Ouattara’s background is Bretton Woods. He is sure to come with fairly orthodox economic plans for the country, no nationalisations et cetera.

Whether you agree with that or not, he has a position. So he will have policies; he is not just a charismatic leader with no ideas. Indeed, some unkind people have struggled to see any charisma at all. Whether or not he has good ideas for national healing, we shall see.

Ouattarra is Muslim and has the support of the Muslim North. Will Ouattara’s Côte d’Ivoire now be discussed as part of the secularism debate in France? And would Ouattara (or his wife) be able to wear a burqa if he so wished? In other words, where does Côte d’Ivoire fit into French foreign policy?

France has a debate on Islam that is to a large extent driven by domestic political concerns. The right-wing and the National Front are fighting over the votes of French people who have been marginalised by the retreat of manufacturing jobs across Europe. Plus there is a largely instrumentalised and irresponsible media.

When it comes to foreign policy, the religious debate is not really an issue.

Though France dresses its actions up in the language of human rights and liberty, it is an extremely blunt player of the realpolitik game, and has protected what it sees as its interests in Africa with a ruthless singularity over the last half-century of the post-colonial era.

Ouattara could wear a tutu as far as the French are concerned, so long as French mining, energy, logistics and agribusiness interests remain unharmed.

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