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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 16:16 GMT
France's Ivorian quagmire
By Henri Astier
BBC News website

From the start of the Ivory Coast conflict, the French force there - Unicorn - has found neutrality as elusive as the mythical creature it is named after.

French tank in Ivory Coast
Is Ivory Coast mission impossible for the Unicorn force?
In 2003 France brokered a peace deal between President Laurent Gbagbo and northern rebels, and sent its soldiers to separate the two.

But Mr Gbagbo did not regard the former colonial power as an honest broker, and relations between the two governments deteriorated fast.

They reached crisis point at the weekend, when Ivorian jets killed nine French soldiers in a bombing raid on the north, and France responded by crippling Ivory Coast's tiny air force.

Both sides afterwards said they wanted to de-escalate the crisis. But the French and Ivorian governments will find it hard to put the matter behind them.

A rock and a hard place

Fear and distrust run deep on both sides.

In recent years a quiet, relatively prosperous French client state has descended into chaos, and Paris has found it impossible to impose its authority.

Vietnam will be nothing compared to what we will do here (to the French)
Mamadou Koulibaly
Ivorian parliamentary speaker
Ironically, it first earned scorn from the rebels, after French troops in effect blocked the northern guerrillas' advance on the country's commercial capital, Abidjan.

But it was not long before the other side took aim at Paris.

When France tried to knock heads together in January 2003, Mr Gbagbo only reluctantly endorsed the resulting Marcoussis power-sharing accords - which many of his supporters denounced as favourable to the rebels.

Pro-government gangs went on the rampage in Abidjan, attacking French interests and expatriates.

In the following months, as French and UN troops tried to stop the fragile peace process from breaking down, Gbagbo's supporters accused France of siding with the rebels.

Nationalist politicians routinely say their country is being re-colonised by Paris. The parliamentary speaker recently told French radio Ivorian resistance will turn the country into France's "Vietnam".

Laurent Gbagbo
Trust has broken down between Gbagbo and France
French officials refrain from incendiary language - but President Chirac is said to have lost patience with Mr Gbagbo.

Paris has been angered by the recent air raids in the north, in violation of an increasingly notional ceasefire, and even more by renewed attacks against expatriates.

In the wake of this weekend's crisis young supporters of Mr Gbagbo - known as the Patriotes - ransacked French businesses and homes in Abidjan.

Hundreds of terrified foreigners - some of them airlifted by helicopters - have been taken to the safety of UN and French army compounds.

France's position is so precarious that some commentators are suggesting it may be time to withdraw the country's 4,000 troops from Ivory Coast.

Their presence could become a "trap", the Paris daily Liberation has warned. It argues that France is "not suited for the role of long-term arbiter" in the conflict.

Staying put?

But for the French government, pulling out is not a viable option as long as 15,000 French people remain in the country, at the mercy of angry Patriotes.

French companies also remain deeply involved in the economy of what remains a regional giant and major cocoa producer.

Furthermore, withdrawal would be diplomatically awkward for France.

"The French have the backing of the UN to act as a back-up for the UN force," Stephen Smith, Africa editor of Le Monde newspaper told BBC News.

"It is up to the international community to decide whether France is an obstacle or a factor for conflict resolution."

Another alternative, of course, would be for the French to overthrow, or help overthrow, Laurent Gbagbo.

But taking advantage a UN mandate that calls for neutrality to install a friendly government would shatter whatever internationality credibility France retains as a peacemaker.

This leaves muddling through as the best option for Paris.

Some "Unicorn" soldiers may be chomping at the bit - eager to teach the Ivorian government a lesson - but for the time being they are likely to stay put.

Scenes of destruction and looting amid tensions


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