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Close ties to Paris could spell trouble for Ouattara

What comes next in France's relationship with its former colony Ivory Coast, now that Laurent Gbagbo has been removed from power? FRANCE 24 talks to Patrick Smith, editor of The Africa Report.

The Africa Report's Patrick Smith joins The Debate on FRANCE 24 on Tuesday at 7.10pm Paris time (GMT+2) – click here to see FRANCE 24's live feed. 

Without the help of French forces, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara might never have been able to remove incumbent Laurent Gbagbo from power. But the hand that helped him could now prove a hindrance, as half of the Ivorian population looks less than kindly on Ouattara’s seemingly cosy relationship with France.

France has been accused of taking sides with the Ouattara camp ever since recognising him as president in December last year. As far as the Gbagbo camp is concerned, these suspicions were confirmed on April 4 when French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to take military action against the incumbent leader – including the bombing of his presidential palace and other targets – as part of the UN’s mission to “neutralise heavy weapons”.
That operation led to the arrest of Gbagbo on Monday. The Gbagbo camp says French forces entered the palace during the “humiliating” arrest, but Paris strongly denied this.


How will the French forces’ involvement in the overthrow of Laurent Gbagbo affect Alassane Ouattara’s credibility as he establishes himself as Ivorian president?

There is no doubt that there are consequences.

Firstly, Gbagbo has a history of accusing Ouattara of being a vehicle to protect the interests of France in Ivory Coast. Gbagbo says that Ouattara’s primary role as prime minister under President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, from 1990 to 1993, was to promote French interests.

Gbagbo was able to convince many Ivorians as well as many other African countries of this. And yesterday’s images of French forces bombing Gbagbo’s forces, shooting a man out of power who had proclaimed himself president, adds to this side effect. There is also the image of Ouattara’s 1990 marriage in Neuilly-sur-Seine, which was officiated by then-mayor Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ouattara is going to have to fight this image if he’s going to have any legitimacy. He is going to have to make a very strong stand for national independence.

Is Ouattara going to have to distance himself from Paris?

I don’t know how he can distance himself from Paris considering the economy and how much it needs to recover. Ivory Coast’s economy has been dislocated for 20 years and in freefall for the last ten. There is much that needs to be fixed in terms of social infrastructure, schools, hospitals, roads, and so on. There are going to be tough economic decisions to be made.

And yet Gbagbo didn’t actually distance himself too much from Paris, and many of Ivory Coast’s existing investors are French. Despite his anti-French rhetoric, Gbagbo remained close to France.

Ivory Coast already has good infrastructure for future growth. Ouattara’s closeness to the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) will certainly help him on the international front. [Ouattara, a trained economist, has worked at the IMF and the Central Bank of West African States]

But this closeness also illustrates his background as a technocrat and bureaucrat, and he is not the most gifted orator. It is going to be hard for him.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet on Tuesday announced a reduction in the French “Licorne” force from 1,700 to “a few hundred men”. How feasible is this considering France’s pivotal role in bringing down Gbagbo?

This is a political thing. There will certainly be more UN troops going out to balance any reduction in French forces. We can also expect to see a bigger role for ECOWAS (the Economic Community Of West African States), which would be an important sign for Ouattara. Getting French troops out of the country would be a big boost to his legitimacy.

Also, and Licorne would be a sitting duck in the case of a pro-Gbagbo insurgency. Reducing its strength would not be a disaster.

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