“A colonial power even several decades afterwards is always unjustified in pronouncing a judgment on the internal affairs of its former colony – and you know it, and everybody knows it.”
That statement in January was how French President Nicolas Sarkozy justified France’s non-intervention in Tunisia.
So what is to be made today of its action in Ivory Coast? What to make of the French helicopters that bombarded the Ivorian presidential palace?
Of course, the French intervention is in tune with international law and backed by a UN mandate.
Besides, the justification for the UN and France alike is once again to protect the civilian population and foreign nationals. Even though it involves military intervention against one particular camp in the Ivory Coast conflict.
The situation has evolved somewhat since French forces arrived in the country following an attempted coup d’etat against Laurent Gbagbo in 2002. Operation Licorne’s mission, independent from that of the UN though with its backing, was to keep the warring parties apart.
This year, amid the tension following the Ivorian presidential election, Paris took a clear stance. Gbagbo should go. When he did not, Ouattara’s supporters demanded international intervention. The clamour became louder after the coalition attacks in Libya. But Libya is not a former French colony.
Gbagbo has made the most of the awkward French position. He has accused France of plotting against him. In a video recorded by his supporters, the message was clear. “David against Goliath”, read the slogan on their T-shirts. “Sarkozy, the Ivory Coast is your terminus”, read a banner in the street.
But France faced Gbagbo’s wrath before Sarkozy took power. In 2004 his forces attacked a French air base, killing nine soldiers. After orders from then French President Jacques Chirac, in response France virtually destroyed the Ivorian air force.
As if to rub salt in the colonial wound, two veteran French lawyers – including Roland Dumas, a former foreign minister – attacked their own government as they quite literally embraced Gbagbo and his cause before the cameras after last year’s president election. The Ivorian leader was a symbol, said Jacques Vergès, of an Africa that does not give in.
However legitimate the French backing for Alassane Ouattara, despite a UN mandate, despite the inability of the UN or the African Union to carry out decisive action, what will stick in the minds of many in Africa are the military strikes from Ivory Coast’s former colonial power.
Paris insists it is backing the right side. Although accusations of a massacre by Ouattara’s forces may, if proven, leave something of a hollow ring to that claim.