Small French firms the big Ivory Coast losers

21st November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 21 (AFP) - Big French companies with interests in Ivory Coast are likely to maintain their business interests there despite the violence which has caused French nationals to flee, but the unrest has severely damaged about 600 small businesses, experts say.

PARIS, Nov 21 (AFP) - Big French companies with interests in Ivory Coast are likely to maintain their business interests there despite the violence which has caused French nationals to flee, but the unrest has severely damaged about 600 small businesses, experts say.

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo appealed on Thursday for French business people to return to the country, saying that while he understood why families had left, he wanted business people to return.

"Not only do I ask them to return, but I say it is our mutual interest," he said.

More than 7,000 French people have fled violence aimed at the French community which totalled 14,000, of whom 8,000 had dual French-Ivorian nationality.

At Bordeaux IV University in France, economy professor Bernard Conte, a specialist in west Africa, said: "The worst effect of the departure of the French from Ivory Coast will be the closure of small and medium-sized companies".

These businesses, spread throughout the economy and providing work to about 36,000 Ivorians, had been the hardest hit by the unrest.

They had played an important role in providing a wide range of jobs and had acted as a bridgehead into west Africa.

If they ceased to exist in Ivory Coast, some might move to "more stable zones in the region" such as Senegal, Togo or Benin, Conte said.

The chairman of the Ivorian chamber of commerce, Jean-Louis Billon, warned recently that closure of small business owned by French nationals would have a domino effect.

Conte said this was particularly a risk because during the unrest "substantial amounts of equipment were destroyed and it seems likely that many entrepreneurs do not plan to return, and this will have a big effect on the economy".

Many of the business owners were close to retirement age and would just close down their operations.

Ivory Coast was in any case facing serious economic problems. The economy had contracted since 2000, with output declining by 2.5 percent in 2000, being flat in 2001, and then declining by 1.6 percent in 2002 and by 5.0 percent last year, on the basis of data from the French development agency AFD.

Conte commented: "At the beginning of November the World Bank classed Ivory Coast among countries carrying non-productive debt and financing was halted."

But the interests of big French groups were not at all threatened, he said.

Among the big companies involved are some with interests mainly in banking.

The Total oil group has a majority interest in the Ivorian refining company and also manages 160 petrol stations.

Construction and telecom group Bouygues is present as is France Telecom which controls the telephone system.

The Castel drinks group has interests and Bollore manages the Abidjan container port and a railway line between Abidjan and Burkina.

Conte said that these companies had been staffed for a long time by Africans under a few French managers who had been evacuated without difficulty during the crisis.

There seemed to be little likelihood of US interests replacing the French.

US interest controlled notably the cocoa industry through the Cargill and ADM companies. US companies were also interested in the gas industry.

Conte explained: "The multinationals want to be able to exploit raw materials without having to pay for the cost of security in the country and I don't see the United States creating small and medium-sized companies there."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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