French PM in Ivory Coast to pledge support
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon vowed Paris would remain Ivory Coast's top partner Friday, on the highest-ranking visit by the former colonial power since the new regime took office.
"Ivory Coast is at a crossroads," said Fillon, who arrived in the troubled west African nation late Thursday on the first leg of a three-nation tour of regional trade partners.
"The challenge will be to succeed in seizing the opportunity of the shock it has just suffered to unite the country again and lay new foundations," he said.
Former strongman Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to relinquish power to his rival Alassane Ouattara in November elections led to a deadly and protracted crisis in the world's top cocoa producer, once the jewel of France's colonies.
The fiery Gbagbo, whose 10 years in power marked a low point in bilateral relations, was eventually captured in April, clearing the way for Ouattara, who has deep ties with France.
France, which has remained Ivory Coast's top economic partner, sent 350 million ($495 million) in emergency assistance to help pay the salaries of civil servants and 100 million ($141 million) to help French and Ivorian firms affected by the country's successive crises.
Fillon, who was accompanied by a large corporate delegation, was speaking at the inauguration of an economic forum in the economic capital Abidjan.
"We are determined to remain your closest partner and the many companies that came with me will tell you so," Fillon told an attendance that included his counterpart Guillaume Soro.
France played a leading role in ousting Gbagbo, joining UN forces in launching military action against him earlier this year.
Fillon will meet with Ouattara before heading in the evening to his next stop in Ghana, considered a democratic model with strong economic growth in the region. His final stop is oil-rich Gabon.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended Ouattara's inauguration in May, and was the only Western head of state present.
© 2011 AFP