After sour years, is French influence on the rise in West Africa?

From the French intervention in Mali, to French special forces in Niger, to commercial interests and military bases in the region – Paris is flexing its muscles. Ivory Coast is the top relationship. 

Etienne Laurent/REUTERS
French President Francois Hollande (l.) receives the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize from Director-General Irina Bokova at UNESCO in Paris June 5, 2013. President Hollande receives the prize for his contribution to peace and stability in Africa.

When Jonathan Valette tells his French friends he’s from Ivory Coast, someone usually asks him if there are any elephants near his home. When he tells his fellow Ivorians about a shared French-Ivorian identity, they don’t quite know what to make of this white fellow. 

But Mr. Valette is Ivorian, just like his father and before that his grandfather, a French immigrant who moved to the country for military service and ended up becoming a close associate of the country’s post-independence leader, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

After over a decade abroad, Valette, who is also a French citizen, recently returned to the country’s main city Abidjan, which is still recovering from a brief war in 2011.

“I had many, many countries [to work in] but I chose Ivory Coast because I’m Ivorian,” Valette says.

Perhaps no former French colony has been so closely tied to its former colonial ruler as Ivory Coast. And that’s not something all Ivorians are comfortable with. The reign of Laurent Gbagbo, who was ousted in 2011 partly with French special forces help, saw a protracted and occasionally violent push against French influence in the country.

But after a decade of souring relations, Ivory Coast’s new President Alassane Ouattara is rekindling the country’s relationship with France, putting itself at the center of the European power’s African strategy once again.

Françafrique policy

For France, West Africa remains as vital as it has always been. Ivory Coast relies on the region's natural resources and fears the Islamist terrorists that lurk in the Sahel on the region's northern flank. 

French President François Hollande has continued much of what is known as the "Françafrique" policy of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. That means Paris has pushed its nexus of interests directly into the business of its former African colonies, despite their independence.

From the French intervention in Mali, to the special forces that respond to suicide bombings in Niger, to the military bases around west and central Africa – the French are willing to openly flex their muscles in the former colonies.

At the center of this is Ivory Coast, its economy reinvigorated, its president friendly, and its streets mostly pacified.

Whether Ivorians cotton to France's newfound boldness is another question.

“The way that France sees Ivory Coast is as a country where it is losing influence and where it wants to keep influence,” says Douglas Yates, a professor at the American University of Paris. “When Gbagbo took over, he harnessed an anti-French sentiment to build popularity.”

Le petit Paris

The echoes of “le petit Paris,” Abidjan’s moniker during the city’s salad days in the 1970s, can still be seen. There’s the baguette-toting commuters, the ubiquitous espresso machines in restaurants and cafes, the billboards for French businesses that greet commuters passing over the Charles de Gaulle Bridge, not to mention a shared language, and the influence of 14,000 French expatriates now residing in the country.

But most Ivorians are young, Mr. Yates says. They didn’t experience the booming economy and rapid development of Mr. Houphouët-Boigny’s time. In those days, some 60,000 French expatriates lived in the former colony. To the younger generation, France is something between a job-creating patron and a neocolonial bogeyman intent on keeping Ivory Coast in its pocket.

“It’s all about their way of integrating. If the French come to do business, there won’t be any problem,” says Dimitri Bakou, a bar owner in the posh Riviera district of Abidjan. “The thing is, when they try to interfere in the politics of the country, there’s a problem.”

The events of 2004 galvanized opinion against the French, particularly in the country’s south, home to Gbagbo’s core supporters. When an Ivorian airstrike killed eight French troops during the country’s civil war, France retaliated by destroying the country’s entire air force.

What happened next is seared into the minds of French expatriates in the country: Mobs descending on French homes and businesses, forcing families to flee to their rooftops as French helicopters ferried them to a military base on the edge of town.

Meanwhile, shootouts between the French military and rioting Ivorians killed scores, deepening the disgust many Ivorians felt of the Europeans.

“From the Ivorian perspective it probably was a turning point because that’s when French military presence and intervention became more present,” says Penelope Chester, an analyst who studies Ivory Coast.

Ivorians tried to diversify

It was the start of a downward spiral for France and Gbagbo, and so the former president went looking for other investors – and mostly came up short, Yates said.

“It’s not really a country that is like Angola, which China is going to give priority to,” he adds. “They’ll [the Chinese will] come in, there’ll be commercial interests, but everyone recognizes that this is France’s Africa.”

And even Gbagbo wasn’t that successful in divesting the French from Ivory Coast. French logistics company Bolloré picked up a contract to manage Abidjan’s port during Gbagbo’s rule.

Bouygues, a prominent French firm, got a deal to manage the country’s electricity supply in 2005. And in 2010 – when Gbagbo was still in power – 31 percent of its imports were still coming from France, according to data compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And now Gbagbo is gone, the result of a disputed presidential election in 2010, a rebel offensive the next year, and finally French firepower to hasten the rebels’ capture of Abidjan. With Ouattara safely in power, there’s a feeling among many expatriates that Ivory Coast is open for business again.

Himself a former International Monetary Fund official, President Ouattara has made overtures to European investors since taking power in 2011. France’s Hollande has been receptive. Ivory Coast received more than $400 million in aid from France in 2013, a rarity these days for France’s government.

Also, when French troops deployed to Mali early this year to stem an offensive by Islamists, French troops drove overland from Ivory Coast to reach the neighboring country.

“The French bet heavily on the side [of Ouattara] and they won,” Yates says.

How much they won remains to be seen: Ouattara is up for reelection in the 2015 presidential election, and the country is still wracked by insecurity in the country’s west. And many Ivorians remain suspicious of Ouattara’s ascension, seeing him as a French-backed usurper, and Gbagbo as the rightful president.

For Mr. Valette, coming back to the city of his birth was a choice: He wanted to work in insurance, just like his father did. But for other Franco-Ivorians, the choice isn’t so easy.

“Some people have nowhere else to go,” Mr. Valette said. “Their home is Africa."

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