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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January, 2005, 16:09 GMT
A Young Patriot's conviction and anger
By James Copnall
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Anti-French protestor in Ivory Coast
Feelings run high over France's role in the violence
Michel, 21 years old and unemployed, is a Young Patriot.

In many quarters the term has a negative connotation: the United Nations, for example, has called the organisation - which is vocal in its support of President Laurent Gbagbo - a militia.

Thousands of Young Patriots took to the streets of Abidjan in the early days of last November, clashing with French soldiers and attacking Western targets throughout the city.

Lots of people consider the Young Patriots to be the personification of all that is wrong with Ivory Coast, a country where the street seems to have more power than the government and chaos is just a wrong turn away.

But for Michel, being a Young Patriot is a badge of honour - and a source of pride.

"Young Patriots is the name we are given," he says.

"But it is not just a name. Below it is a deep conviction.

"When the French tried to depose Laurent Gbagbo we had to stop them, even though they were firing on us with real bullets. And we won."

Human shields

Michel is convinced the French forces were after Gbagbo - something they deny.

"The French destroyed our air force, they took our airport, they fired on the presidential palace in Yamoussoukro, they put their tanks right next to the president's residence," he says.

Young Patriots rally
The problem is not with the French; it is with Jacques Chirac and his military
Michel, Young Patriot
"When they attacked those symbols of the republic, we knew they were trying to depose the president."

The French say they positioned tanks and armoured vehicles at the famous Hotel Ivoire, less than a kilometre from Gbagbo's residence in Abidjan, in order to help foreign citizens fleeing the country after anti-white attacks.

But for Michel and thousands of his colleagues, the French armour was preparing to roll on the president's house to depose him.

Responding to fiery appeals on state television and radio, they surrounded the Hotel Ivoire, chanting their support for President Gbagbo and their hatred of the French, massing in front of the barbed wire and tank barrels designed to keep them at arm's length.

As the French soldiers left the hotel, shots rang out, killing at least 10 and wounding hundreds.

"The French said it was Ivorian soldiers who fired, but that is a lie," Michel explains, indignation in his voice.

"I was wearing a T-shirt saying: 'The population and the army have decided to liberate the country'. How could the army fire on its own? And we saw the snipers in the building."

For days after the French withdrew to less provocative quarters, Young Patriots gathered at the state television and radio stations and the president's residence in order to provide what state media called a "human shield" for the president and likely targets of a coup attempt.

Makeshift road blocks were erected throughout the chic suburb of Cocody and supporters rushed to provide food, water and alcohol for the Young Patriots as they camped out at their designated, strategic locations.

Infiltration

For Michel, these actions were a legitimate defence of republican institutions.

He admits that people calling themselves Young Patriots sometimes went too far.

After they failed to retake the airport from the French military, thousands of frustrated young men turned their attention to French and other white civilians, spurred on by state broadcasts repeating inflammatory messages.

But Michel says that those who targeted foreigners were not real Patriots.

"I deplore that," he says.

"I think we must have been infiltrated. Remember that more than 4,000 prisoners escaped at that time.

"The problem is not with the French; it is with Jacques Chirac and his military.

"Whenever I see Chirac I see a coloniser. He is using an army of occupation here."

The leader of the Young Patriots is Blé Goudé. He always wears an upturned baseball cap and jeans and his charismatic speeches and brilliant organisational skills have made him someone who counts in Ivorian life.

He is a former student leader and the Young Patriots take much of their strength from the student unions.

Blé Goudé was also once a friend of Guillaume Soro - the leader of the New Forces rebel movement - although they are now sworn enemies.

It is often alleged that he is one of the most powerful men in the country.

"Blé Goudé is one of the top three or four. He practically runs the country," says a member of the state military, who did not wish to be named.

While that assessment is perhaps overblown, it is widely believed that Blé Goudé receives his orders directly from President Gbagbo.

'I must defend my future'

One Ivorian opposition politician, who went into hiding when the civil war broke out, explains further.

"President Gbagbo has set up a parallel system," he says.

"He cannot count on the army any more, so he has militias like the Young Patriots."

Michel says he joined the Young Patriots because he is concerned about his future.

"I am nearly 22 and I haven't yet worked," he explains.

"Our economy is in a mess and it's all in French hands. I must defend my future."





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