Cote d’Ivoire: The View From France

I’m spending the holidays at home, in France, where the national media is covering the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire quite closely. With 14,000 expats and over 600 commercial interests in the country, it’s not surprising that the French – the former colonial power –  are following the events unfolding in Côte d’Ivoire. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been tense for years now. France played a significant role in negotiating peace accords between North and South in 2003, and the country has been involved militarily in Côte d’Ivoire since 2002 through Operation Unicorn, whose mandate is to support the UN peacekeeping mission, and to act as a rapid reaction force and/or protect French interests in the country if necessary.

Post-colonial relations between the two countries are complex. While Laurent Gbagbo is describing French involvement in the current crisis as foreign interference in the affairs of a sovereign country, Ivoirian nationals living in France are accusing Sarkozy of supporting Gbagbo’s illegitimate government: a recent protest in front of the Ivoirian embassy in Paris was quelled by police, and supporters of Alassane Ouattara were outraged that the French were interfering in this way. Even though a large majority of French politicians are echoing the international community’s call for Gbagbo to step down, other French political and legal figures have been supporting him.

Two prominent – and infamous – French lawyers, Jacques Vergès and Roland Dumas traveled this week to Côte d’Ivoire to advise Gbagbo. Both men have held positions of power in France: Foreign Ministry, presidency of the Constitutional Council, but are especially known for their shady dealings. Verges is notorious for having been on the defense team of some odious characters: Slobodan Milosevic, Klaus Barbie, or Tarek Aziz, a member of Saddam Hussein’s administration. As for Roland Dumas, he has been involved in some of France’s most massive politico-financial scandals in the 90s, and is also known for supporting 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Vergès and Dumas are supporting Gbagbo’s claim that he won the election. Vergès even goes as far as to say that the current crisis is an electoral coup orchestrated by French and American diplomats in Côte d’Ivoire (“Il s’agit d’un coup d’Etat électoral organisé par le représentant de la France et le représentant des Etats-Unis en Côte d’Ivoire, qui ont pris par la main le responsable de la Commission électorale indépendante (CEI) [qui donne Ouattara vainqueur depuis le 3 décembre, ndlr] et l’ont conduit tout droit à l’hôtel du Golf [le quartier général d’Alassane Ouattara].”) This discourse is helping to legitimize Gbagbo’s position, and is contributing to his continued intransigence.

The specter of an armed intervention – most likely led by ECOWAS – doesn’t seem to break Gbagbo’s resolve. He’s in fact probably strengthened by the fact that not every West African leader is fully supporting a military intervention. Cape Verde’s president, Pedro Pires, – who was one of the three high-level negotiators sent by the regional organization to Côte d’Ivoire to meet Gbagbo – has been a dissenting voice in ECOWAS, arguing against a military intervention and quietly supporting the position of the Ivoirian strongman. In addition, Ghana – one of the region’s best trained military – has already indicated it would not send troops. Nevertheless, preparations for a military intervention are moving forward, with a meeting of defense ministers in Nigeria earlier this week, and another meeting scheduled for mid-January.

ECOWAS and the international community are still hoping that dialogue and negotiations will help avoid this solution of last resort, though amid increasing partisan and ethnic violence, and the threat of civil war, the urgency of finding a way out of the crisis cannot be understated. As Mark mentioned in a recent post, Côte d’Ivoire is a critically important country in the region, and the political resolution – or lack thereof – of this crisis will have a deep impact on West Africa.

Gbagbo supporters are now threatening to seize Ouattara’s headquarters on New Year’s day, which some analysts believe to be an empty threat. But if the high levels of violence in recent weeks is any indication, I think it’s hard to believe that this will not at least lead to further bouts of intimidation and violence, making the prospect of civil war that much more likely. Côte d’Ivoire already had over 600,000 internally displaced people prior to the crisis, and more than 18,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Liberia, 62% of which are under 18 according to the UNHCR, who is planning on opening a new camp near the border between the two countries.

In France, daily media reports are grim and less than hopeful. A civil war in Côte d’Ivoire is something the French are hoping will be avoided, as their military involvement – at least in the short term – will be difficult to avoid yet politically very dangerous, both diplomatically and domestically. France has renewed its call for expatriates – especially those with children – to leave the country.

Here’s to hoping that the New Year will bring a swift resolution to the crisis and peace for the people of Côte d’Ivoire.