- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

PARIS — In a part of Africa once nearly as French as Provence, France’s army is struggling to keep ragtag loyalists away from rebels while its diplomats try to repair the underpinnings of empire.

President Jacques Chirac is determined to quash conflict in Ivory Coast and its glittering port city, Abidjan, not only to protect French interests but also to help stabilize an unruly continent.

In real terms, Paris is still the most important African capital more than 40 years after Charles de Gaulle granted independence to colonies stretching from Senegal to the Republic of Congo.

And as President Bush looks increasingly toward Africa, Washington relies on France to play its traditional role of keeping order while African leaders build democracies and market economies.

U.S. forces in the Middle East also count heavily on the 3,000 Frenchmen based at Djibouti, just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia.

But new generations in France and Africa question whether this old role fits into a new global picture. French public support is waning for African adventures. Restive immigrant populations add a political price.

Despite his interest in Africa, Mr. Chirac is steering France into a stronger European Union, which aims to define its own defense and foreign policy. France’s $50 billion defense budget is under pressure.

For now, France is staying put in Africa.

About 10,000 French soldiers and Foreign Legionnaires are based in four African countries, ready for anything. When rebels attacked in Ivory Coast late in 2002, the troops evacuated French people and Americans alike.

France is Africa’s biggest donor and trade partner. Its national bank anchors the CFA franc used by 13 countries. Its oil companies hold vast concessions. African leaders routinely fly to Paris for dinner.

During the mid-1990s, the Socialist Party prime minister, Lionel Jospin, sought to cut back France’s presence in Africa.

“We saw immediately there was no way that France could abandon its historic role or its interests,” said Guy Teissier, head of the defense committee in the National Assembly.

“France is essential to ensuring stability and development on much of the continent,” he said.

Herman Cohen, a U.S. diplomat in five African countries and Paris before becoming a deputy assistant secretary of state and the National Security Council’s Africa expert, agrees with that assessment.

Now a private consultant who works often in former French territory, he sees France having to play its old role in a new way.

“The Arab population in France is giving colonialism a bad taste in the mouth, and public indifference to French grandeur in Africa makes it hard for France to take risks in the military area,” he said.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Cohen said, “French troops would have defeated the rebels in Ivory Coast. Now, they are limited to blocking actions. They cannot afford casualties politically.”

He sees U.S.-French cooperation on political and military issues in Africa as closer, and more effective, than those between the United States and Britain.

Although the Bush administration shows growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa and seeks new base agreements in the Muslim north, Mr. Cohen discounts the idea that Washington wants to push aside France.

In the end, he concluded, “France remains extremely influential in former colonies and other countries such as the Congo. If not for them, Ivory Coast would be a total mess. Now it will muddle through.”

On a visit to Africa last year, an AP correspondent with nearly four decades of experience on the continent found the French footprint little diminished by time.

In Libreville, Gabonese troops arrested the reporter for taking photos near President Omar Bongo’s palace. He was delivered to French soldiers who, out of sight, still assure order in the former colony.

On the river crossing from Ivory Coast to Liberia, with rebellion raging nearby, he saw a half-dozen French soldiers patrolling the border with only assault rifles and a single light armored car.

Their officer was relaxed, helmet off, in plain view of the surrounding jungle. He would not give his name, but he laughed when asked how 2,500 soldiers kept order across such a large country.

The officer said a symbolic presence was enough because rebels knew that helicopters and tanks would appear with guns blazing should anyone start a fight. Not long after, this was exactly what happened.

As a result of quick deployment in 2002, fewer than 9,000 French citizens out of a community of 25,000 fled Ivory Coast.

But French officers chafe at their role of referee, of using troops to separate determined rebels and tough young Ivorian loyalists eager for a fight.

Now gangs besiege the French base at Abidjan, heaving firebombs and rocks at troops. Leaders harangue crowds in English, which few Ivorians speak, to signal displeasure with France.

The French force has swollen to 4,000. Their essentially passive role does little to stop what used to be West Africa’s most vibrant economy from nearing collapse.

Cocoa farmers who grow the basic ingredient for nearly half the world’s chocolate often cannot get their crop to market. Foreign investment is paralyzed.

Even the most enthusiastic backers of a French role in Africa acknowledge that times have changed.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Frenchmen often chose African leaders at secret meetings in Paris. When an African president ran up a deficit at the end of the year, the Elysee Palace wrote a slush-fund check to cover it.

Defense treaties assured France would protect its former colonies from any threat, and French companies reaped rewards in trade agreements and mineral concessions.

Yet much remains the same. At the annual Franco-African summit, former Belgian territories — the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi — and some ex-Portuguese colonies have been welcomed into the French fold.

The French air force has strengthened its fleet of transport planes to quickly send reinforcements. In the past, it had to charter Russian airliners or borrow U.S. C-130s.

While French courts attempt to unravel past scandals of bribery and secret bonanzas involving French corporate executives in Africa, new business thrives.

In the cornerstone ex-colony of Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade welcomed George W. Bush last July and has stepped up a regular dialogue with Washington about new types of cooperation.

But, he recently told the weekly Jeune Afrique, “Senegal and France are united in a relationship of more than 300 years, and nothing can erase that.”

In France, where Senegalese make up a substantial proportion of nearly a million Africans with roots in former colonies, many express similar sentiments.

“We saw how dangerous it was to disengage from Africa,” said Pierre Morange, a National Assembly member who heads a French-Ivorian friendship group and reflects broad sentiment among majority parties.

“For us, it is a matter of philosophy, of humanity, as well as national interest,” he said. “There is no question of France simply abandoning Africa. It will never happen.”

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