France rediscovers its global influence and muscle

In Paris's biggest operation in Africa in 20 years, 2,500 troops head to Ivory Coast.

As France beefs up its troops in war-torn Ivory Coast, where its soldiers are already fighting antigovernment rebels, Paris is sending a clear diplomatic message to the world.

"France is back," says Dominique Moisi, a top political analyst here, after seven years of divided government that all but paralyzed French influence in international affairs.

At the United Nations, in the councils of the European Union, and now in France's old stamping grounds of Africa, newly re-elected President Jacques Chirac, with a fresh parliamentary majority behind him, is flexing French muscles on the world stage with unaccustomed vigor.

The effects have been felt at the UN Security Council, where France took a leading role in negotiations with the United States over the wording of the resolution demanding that Iraq submit to weapons inspections.

The signs are clear in the European Union, where France and Germany have united as the duo that has traditionally provided the union's engine. Earlier this month they obliged Turkey to put its hopes of EU membership on hold for another two years; before that they set EU farm policy in a private deal that other members were not strong enough to change.

And now in West Africa, Paris has abandoned its policy of leaving African nations to resolve African crises and launched its biggest military operation on the continent in more than 20 years, with 2,500 men to be deployed in Ivory Coast by the end of this week.

"This marks a shift in French policy in Africa," says Roland Marchal, an expert on Africa at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. "It's new, and it's very much a result of Chirac feeling secure enough to take a quite risky initiative now he has a parliamentary majority" and a sympathetic government, after seven years of "cohabitation" with a hostile Socialist prime minister.

That period was marked by a sense of frustration in France that the country - which has traditionally seen itself as a global standard bearer of universal values - was unable to make its presence felt abroad while US power grew. Since elections in June, however, Mr. Chirac has enjoyed a free hand in foreign policy that has clearly emboldened him.

New signals on Iraq

This new atmosphere is likely to influence French policy toward Iraq, should the US go to war against Baghdad.

Warning that the prospect of an internationally sanctioned war "should by no means be ruled out," Chirac said recently that in such an event "France will know how to assume her responsibilities."

That was a clear hint that "if there is a UN decision against Iraq, France will definitely participate in operations," says Dr. Moisi, of the French International Relations Institute, a think tank in Paris. "And if the US goes it alone, France will regret it diplomatically, but offer help on the side, such as bases and the use of airspace."

For the time being, around 36,000 French troops are engaged in foreign operations, mostly peacekeeping, from Kabul to the Balkans and Africa. The most dangerous is currently the mission in Ivory Coast, where French soldiers came under fire from a rebel convoy outside the western town of Duékoué Saturday, before destroying it.

Furious rebels vowed revenge. "The French are not invincible," said Guillaume Soro, a leader of the main rebel group. "They lost in Indochina. We can at least make sure there are families mourning in France as well as in Ivory Coast."

French troops intervened in Ivory Coast initially to protect foreign civilians caught in a civil war that broke out after a failed military coup on Sept. 19. But as rebels from different factions have advanced from the North and West of the country toward the commercial capital, Abidjan, French foreign legionaries have increasingly been holding the line for President Laurent Gbagbo.

Ivory Coast's three rebel factions warned yesterday that if there were any attacks by French troops on rebel positions, they would launch an all-out offensive.

French troops are ready to stay for as long as it takes to negotiate a political solution to the crisis, French Army chief General Henri Bentegeat said Sunday. "France ... can leave 2,500 men in Ivory Coast for some years if need be," he told reporters in Abidjan.

Reluctant intervention

Gen. Bentegeat insisted that "there is no question of setting off to reconquer Ivory Coast," and analysts here agree that France would rather not have sent troops.

"France is involved despite herself," says Bernard Conte, an expert on Ivory Coast at Bordeaux University. "Paris has been trapped by the [Ivorian] government, and by West African leaders" who have shown themselves unable and unwilling to resolve the crisis themselves.

Leaders in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been arguing among themselves about how to handle the crisis, and bargaining with France over how much money Paris will pay to transport and equip a regional peacekeeping force, due to be in place by the end of this year.

This dilatory approach "marks the failure of French policy in Africa," based on assisting local governments to organize their own peacekeeping forces, says Mr. Conte. "African nations said they wanted to take their destiny into their own hands, but as soon as there is a problem, they look to the old colonial power for help."

The French decision to send troops, while risking criticism for reviving memories of colonial adventures, was taken "in the name of the modern concept of humanitarianism," says Moisi. After failing to halt the Rwandan genocide, "Paris is saying now that it will not allow bloodshed and the murder of civil society while sitting back passively."

This new activism, however, may come at a price in Ivory Coast. "It is easy to get involved," cautions Marchal. "But it will be quite difficult to get out."

France's interests

Ivory Coast, the world's largest producer of cocoa, is the economic heavyweight of West Africa, accounting for 40 percent of the GNP in ECOWAS countries. Experts worry that Ivory Coast could spiral into the kind of bloodshed and economic chaos that have troubled neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia. Twenty thousand French citizens live in Ivory Coast, and French companies have interests there in public works and utilities projects, including water and electricity supply.

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