France and Ivory Coast 'pass point of no return'

18th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 18 (AFP) - The unprecedented explosion of violence in Ivory Coast this month, which sparked an exodus of foreigners, has plunged relations between France and its west African former colony over a cliff with no hope of reconciliation, experts say.

PARIS, Nov 18 (AFP) - The unprecedented explosion of violence in Ivory Coast this month, which sparked an exodus of foreigners, has plunged relations between France and its west African former colony over a cliff with no hope of reconciliation, experts say.

The dire state of affairs was underlined Thursday when Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo made a plea on French radio for French businessmen to return to his country, the world's biggest cocoa producer now facing economic ruin.

"The breaking point has been reached, a certain post-colonial era has come to an end and there will be no going back. French-Ivorian ties will never be as they were," said Antoine Glaser, an Africa specialist and director of the authoritative "La Lettre du Continent" publication.

More than 6,000 French citizens were evacuated from Ivory Coast after a sudden rise in racist violence against whites spread by militant gangs of youths loyal to Gbagbo. Several Frenchwomen were raped and other brutal assaults were said to have occurred.

The gangs have been roaming Abidjan in anger after French forces acting as a buffer between government troops and rebels wiped out Ivory Coast's tiny air force in retaliation for a November 6 air attack that killed nine French soldiers and an American.

"Before, during crises, there was only pillaging of property. But now, for the first time, we have seen physical assaults, rapes, a real witch-hunt against the French," Glaser said.

The result was that "a taboo had been broken" and the sort of protection the French had assumed had existed had been swept aside.

"The line has been stepped over, and the model of successful decolonisation has been blown to bits," he said.

Although France has been careful to avoid blaming Gbagbo directly for the turn of events, it pushed through a UN resolution slapping an arms embargo on Ivory Coast.

Meanwhile, the economy is listing after the sudden departure of the community of mostly French businessmen which helped underpin the country's former prosperity.

Gbagbo, in an interview with the France Info and France Inter radio stations, called for the businessmen to return.

"The French schools have been burnt down in Abidjan, therefore I perfectly understand that parents, wanting their children to have a normal school year, have gone," said Gbagbo. "I would have done the same thing," he added.

"But as for the others, the businessmen, I don't just ask them to return, I think that the interest is reciprocated on their part," he said

"What would you expect them to do today in France when they have invested their whole life in Ivory Coast?" he asked.

One of the French citizens evacuated, Catherine Rechenmann, who also heads an French expat association, said she saw "no prospect for the future" of the Ivory Coast after watching French schools - which had many Ivorian students - destroyed.

Bernard Conte, an economics professor at Bordeaux University, concurred. "I don't see the French returning," he said.

"I don't think the (Ivorian) state wants that, and it is supported by the majority of the population, especially the youths," he said.

Glaser said that, if the French do go back, it would be for short-term assignments rather than taking their entire families with them.

The gradual decline in French expats - from 50,000 in 1990 to 15,000 before the current crisis (including some 8,000 Ivorians with dual citizenship) - pointed to a latent problem, he added.

For France more generally, the Ivory Coast eruption underlined its loss of influence in Africa and its inability to direct some governments on the continent as it used to, he said.

"Gbagbo wants to look as much to China and the United States" and is seeking to break France's hold on what it used to consider its backyard, Glaser said.

But Conte and other experts said the risk there, however, was that Ivory Coast - once a haven of stability and relative wealth - would be dragged through years of the strife and struggle that continue to lay low other countries in the region.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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