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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 22:18 GMT
French fears in Ivory Coast
By Lara Pawson
BBC, Ivory Coast

The morbid dislike of foreigners, or xenophobia, lies at the heart of politics in Ivory Coast today - that, at least, is the view of a sizable minority here.

Whether it is true was, in part, put to the test with the trial of the policeman accused of killing a French journalist in Abidjan on 21 October 2003.

Jean-Helene Irheam
Helene's killing symbolised growing anti-French feelings
"In Ivory Coast today, racism has gone up," says Guy Eloi Gnenao.

He heads the Foundation for Jean Helene-Irheam - an organisation which takes its name from the 50 year-old journalist who worked for Radio France Internationale when he was shot dead at point-blank range outside a police station in Abidjan.

"There are some people who do not want to see the foreigners, the white man," he says.

"They do not want to share their life with them. They think it is because of them that they are becoming very poor."

'Support for rebels'

"The supporters of the government always think that in this war the white people, precisely the French men, help the rebels.

I hope that this trial will not be the scene of hatred once again
Jacques Lhuillery
AFP Bureau Chief
"They think that Jean Helene was working for the rebels," he adds.

The French have some 4,000 troops currently in Ivory Coast.

They monitor a shaky cease-fire and maintain the buffer zone which is keeping the two warring sides apart.

Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo allege that French journalists and the French authorities have favoured the rebels - or former rebels as the New Forces are now known - since the crisis began.

They allege that the Linas Marcoussis peace accords - brokered a year ago in France - also favoured the rebels.

Significant role

The French have good reason to try to quell tension in the former colony.

About 20,000 nationals were living in the country prior to the crisis.

Anti-French protesters in Abidjan
Government supporters accuse the French of backing the rebels
Although some 5,000 have left, French investors still play a significant role in the economy, to the irritation of some men who are close to the president.

"The French think they run the place. It is fine for them to live here but I don't see why they should benefit so much," one of them told me.

Anti-white feelings are new to Ivory Coast, according to a diplomatic source who says that racism has only occurred since an army mutiny 15 months ago.

Hate media

"Since September 2002, anti-French sentiment has been whipped up. Obviously that impacts on other white people but it's been artificially manufactured," the source said.

The real problem here is ethnic, the anti-Burkinabe problem, for example, is much bigger than the anti-white problem
Diplomatic source
One of the dead man's friends, Jacques Lhuillery, was talking to him four hours before he was killed.

"We knew doing our work here as foreign journalists, especially as French journalists - although I wouldn't say specifically white journalists - we knew it was difficult," Mr Lhuillery, bureau chief of Agence France Presse in Ivory Coast told the BBC.

"But it was thousands and thousands of light years from our minds that a journalist would be killed so brutally."

Allegations that Helene's death was the result of an organised assassination attempt carried out by agents of the state are not credible according to Mr Lhuillery.

He believes that the man who is alleged to have shot the journalist had fallen prey to propaganda in the media.

"He has been the victim of a daily and repeated hatred spread by the state media or extremist newspapers. When you don't have a high IQ and you read every day that the French are the enemy, it can be dangerous,' says Mr Lhuillery.

Ethnic divide

Many here say that internal ethnic and religious differences pose a much bigger problem for Ivory Coast than any claims of racism.

"The real problem here is ethnic, the anti-Burkinabe problem, for example, is much bigger than the anti-white problem," a diplomatic source told the BBC.

Here, xenophobic language is embedded in day-to-day speech. The so-called "autochthonous" peoples are those who were born in Ivory Coast and whose forefathers were born in Ivory Coast.

The "allogenes" are also Ivorians, but they are people who have moved from the north to the south.

Finally, the "immigrants" are those who come from Burkina Faso, Mali or Guinea.

'Climate of hatred'

However, many so-called immigrants have lived here for decades and may even be second- or third- generation Ivorians.

It is estimated that 26% of the population are immigrants.

Since the economic down-turn - largely because of political instability here - the ethnic or 'immigrant' card has been exploited by certain politicians.

Today many people here - particularly the foreign journalists' community still in the country - will be hoping that the trial of the man accused of killing Jean-Helene will not stoke up any more hatred.

"I hope that this trial will not be the scene of hatred once again. I do hope it will not be the occasion to revive this climate of hatred we saw a year ago," Jacques Lhuillery said.

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