This week marks the one-year anniversary of what French documentary filmmakers Stéphane Haumant and Jérome Pin have dubbed "The Black Tuesday of the French Army". On November 9, 2004, French forces opened fire on a crowd of protestors gathered in front of the Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, the capital city of Côte d'Ivoire. At least seven Ivorian civilians were killed, with dozens more wounded. Two days earlier, French helicopter gunboats had opened fire on another crowd of Ivorian protestors crossing one of Abidjan's principal bridges -- named, ironically enough, after Charles de Gaulle. From November 6 to November 10, altogether anywhere from "around 20" (the French estimate) to 57 (the official Ivorian figure) Ivorian civilians fell victim to French fire in Abidjan.
Most Americans and other English speakers will not know that these events occurred. Despite the easy availability of ample video footage of the Hotel Ivoire episode, the mainstream media showed a level of discretion in dealing with the reports coming out of Abidjan that they would surely not have shown if it was, say, American forces that stood accused of firing into crowds of Iraqi or Afghani civilians. For instance, a New York Times report on the Côte d'Ivoire of November 10, 2004, devotes all of two sentences to the Hotel Ivoire incident, while liberally invoking "violent demonstrations against the French" and Ivorian "mobs" -- not to mention "white men and women cowering in their homes, black men and women rampaging through the streets." Whereas the days of unrest culminating in the Hotel Ivoire incident involved widespread looting, much of it directed against the homes of French expatriates and French businesses, in fact the organized demonstrations against the French military presence were by all first-hand accounts non-violent.
What happened at the Hotel Ivoire? To answer this question, some background is necessary. In January 2003, France brokered a peace agreement between the Ivorian government of President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel forces operating in the north of the country. Gbagbo has never hidden his hostility to the agreement. Reports in the French press suggested that he only acquiesced to it when faced by French threats to charge his wife and political collaborator, Simone Gbagbo, with crimes before the International Criminal Court. Without going into details, Gbagbo has himself spoken of the Ivorian government having agreed "with a gun at its head." He might also have been alluding to the some 2,500 French troops that had lately been dispatched to his country. The French force, dubbed "Operation Unicorn" and since increased to some 4,000 troops, would be placed ex post under a UN "peacekeeping" mandate (i.e. it was dispatched without one), though it has continued to operate independently of a separate UN force.
On November 6, 2004, two Ivorian air force jets bombed a French base at Bouaké in the French-controlled buffer zone separating the rebel-controlled north from the government-controlled south. Nine French soldiers were reported killed. Ivorian officials claimed the incident was an accident. French forces responded by destroying on the ground the entirety of the small Ivorian air force and seizing control of the Abidjan airport.
These actions sparked the anti-French protests of the following days. Why exactly French forces had taken up position at the Hotel Ivoire on November 9 is unclear. But their presence there, at some mere hundreds of meters from the Presidential residence, triggered suspicions that the French were preparing militarily to overthrow the Gbagbo government. Charles Blé Goudé, leader of the pro-government "Young Patriots" youth organization, called on Ivorians to mass around the hotel. Thousands heeded the call.
What happened then is a matter of dispute. While finally conceding, following weeks of denials, that French forces opened fire, the French Defense Ministry insists to this day that they were responding to fire from "Young Patriot" militants and hence that their actions constituted "legitimate defense". Numerous witnesses, ranging from Ivorian gendarmes to western guests at the hotel, claim, on the contrary, that it was the French troops who opened fire and that the crowd was unarmed. Haumont and Pim were present in Abidjan as reporters for the French satellite television channel Canal+. Their documentary on the "Black Tuesday of the French Army", which was shown last March at the Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, essentially confirms the latter account. From their reconstruction, the currently most plausible version of the events is that the French forces responded to "pressure" from the crowd -- a barbed wire barrier had been cleared away, a protestor had climbed onto a French tank -- but not to gunfire.
If, moreover, the French "legitimate defense" claim stretches the bounds of credulity in the case of the Hotel Ivoire incident -- what business, after all, had French troops massing in downtown Abidjan in the first place? -- it clearly exceeds them in that of the helicopter attack on the Charles de Gaulle Bridge. Chilling footage shot by Haumont and Pim shows terrorized protestors scattering as French fire lights up the night sky. Two vehicles are pulverized. No one questions that the protestors crossing the bridge in the direction of Abidjan airport were civilians. They obviously presented no threat to the helicopters that fired on them.
The French Defense Ministry has persistently rejected calls for the Abidjan events to be investigated. Curiously, however, some three weeks ago, with their anniversary fast approaching, it let it be known that it was investigating a murky affair involving three members of the "Unicorn" force who apparently wounded and then unceremoniously disposed of a single Ivorian "bandit" named "Mahé". As a result, the former Commanding Officer of "Unicorn", Henri Poncet, was first suspended and then given the "severe" punishment of a "reprimand". General Poncet has never faced any sanction for his role as Commanding Officer when French troops under orders opened fire on Ivorian civilians last November.
The French media gamely and predictably went along with the Defense Ministry's thinly-veiled efforts to deflect criticism over the Abidjan massacres, giving prominent play to the "Mahé" story and ample opportunity to Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie dramatically to proclaim the "honor" of the French Army at stake. After all, Alliot-Marie explained to the weekly Journal du Dimanche, "the irreproachable attitude of the French military is unanimously appreciated all over the world."
John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer (www.trans-int.com).