TCS Daily

France's Foreign Lesion

By Sylvain Charat - December 2, 2004 12:00 AM

What a wake-up call. French soldiers being killed and wounded in Ivory Coast attacks. Forced into exile, thousands of French citizens have been rushed back to France. At home, the population is baffled, and they really don't understand why soldiers are dying in what seems to be acts of war. They don't understand those unacceptable acts of violence towards the French community: rape, pillage, murder. It all raises a vital question: What was the purpose of the French army presence in Ivory Coast in the first place?

Of course there are the official reasons. France's official explanation for the deployment of 4,000 French soldiers is of a philanthropic nature: helping to prevent chaos. The September 2002 coup led France to organize a military intervention called Unicorn, mobilizing those soldiers (compare this to the 6,240 blue helmets of the UN, and you get a good idea of the French involvement) and backed by the UN through resolution 1464. On January 24, 2003 the Marcousis Agreement was signed by all Ivorian political forces, stating that Laurent Gbgabo remained president of Ivory Coast and forming a government of national reconciliation. Afterwards, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1479 on, which basically organized a UN military presence and aimed at organizing democratic elections at the end of 2005.

But nothing was said of the economic reasons. France is Ivory Coast's number-one customer and top foreign investor, owning 27 percent of the capital of companies and representing 68 percent of direct foreign investments. Moreover more than 17,000 French citizens are residents in the country. Indeed, economic ties are important. That's why French troops have been garrisoned in Ivory Coast since its independence; you do not let go of a jewel.

Peace failed and war broke out. France is in the crossfire, revealing a true ambiguity. Both sides are heavily criticizing France. Loyalists accuse it of not stopping rebel attacks from outside (Liberia and Guinea are politically instable, and it appears that most of the rebels were trained in Burkina-Faso). Rebels accuse it of having stopped them on their way to Abidjan and of doing nothing against Ivorian army extortion. So what is France's real position?

In-depth explanations for its presence are not given. The historical background and the reality of intervention leads us to consider several possible choices: preserving France's interests, helping keeping peace through cease-fire, colonizing again our former colony to enforce democracy. It is all that, and at the same time none of them.

But, above all, there is one striking fact: the general French policy in Africa is a mystery. The country is a 'no trespassing zone'. By tradition in France, foreign affairs are the president's private domain. The foreign affairs minister only applies his policies. France is the only Western country where foreign policy is not a debating topic. The sovereignty of the people does not mean anything even if it has elected the president directly. The Parliament has no checking powers and is quietly relegated to domestic matters.

The French Republic acts as an authoritarian regime, not as a democracy, since President Chirac has a free hand with international matters. This practice underlines that France still has to introduce an internal democratic debate to discuss its own foreign policy. This is key to understanding French foreign policy: it is above all the policy of one man or group of men, not of a nation. Such diplomacy requires a strong personal leadership along with the awareness of the nation's interests, two qualities necessary to put up a straight line of action, but two qualities often missing.

With the personality of the president so important, the central question is this: can a domestic affairs flip-flopper be a foreign affairs hard-liner? Chirac has never been clear. The popular feeling is that there is no short-, mid- or long-run policy and Chirac's muddleheaded diplomacy in Ivory Coast is merely the latest example of a catastrophe, ruining life of thousands French people. And we still do not know why.

Sylvain Charat is director of policy studies in the think tank Eurolibnetwork in Paris.


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