Analysis: French options limited in Ivory Coast

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Sarkozy is reinforcing troop numbers in Ivory Coast’s conflict, but fears for French expatriates and political concerns at home may make it difficult to go beyond a formal mandate to protect civilians.

Sarkozy restored some credibility to France’s diplomatic muscle after taking the lead in pushing for a military intervention in Libya.

But a year before a bruising reelection battle, and with his country’s troops already involved in Afghanistan and now Libya, Sarkozy will be wary of getting deeper into a messy conflict between presidential rivals in the former French colony.

Unlike in Libya, Paris has extensive political and economic interests in Ivory Coast and 12,000 citizens, including 8,000 dual nationals, on the ground there.

The precedent guiding Sarkozy is his anxiousness to avoid scenes in 2004, when militiamen hunted down French people in Ivory Coast, prompting the French army to evacuate them from rooftops, in retaliation for France’s support of the north in a 2002-03 civil war that split the country in two.

“Our president is unpredictable,” said Christian Bouquet, an African expert at the University of Bordeaux.

“He went very quickly to support rebels in Libya, but he won’t necessarily go that fast in Ivory Coast given France’s history with this country … but who knows?”

In the current conflict, forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who U.N.-certified results show won a November 28 presidential election, are battling to forcefully remove Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to step down.

The months of post-election turmoil have left more than 1,000 people dead and rekindled the country’s civil war.

“France must stay within its U.N. mandate to protect civilians which is what it’s doing by increasing troops,” said Bouquet said.

“This is already a lot because it means they will have to move around town with armored vehicles and nobody doubts that the Gbgabo camp will accuse France of interfering.”

TROOP BOOST

France has increased its troop numbers since Friday to 1,650 from 1,000 to protect expatriates and support a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force. It has taken control of the airport in a move the military said gave it control of the airspace should mass evacuations be necessary.

“France’s responsibility is protect its citizens,” Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told French media. “We will not expose French people to being hostages or indirect victims of confrontation between these two forces.”

Fighting has now spread to the main city Abidjan where the majority of foreigners are based. Whereas in Libya, Sarkozy led the way, in Ivory Coast he has adopted a much lower profile.

One French national, a pro-Gbagbo teacher, has died in the current violence, although the circumstances of his death are unclear.

Longuet acknowledged that a peaceful outcome was unlikely in Ivory Coast. While he appeared to rule out France intervening militarily, his caveat was that it could should the United Nations request it do so.

Since Friday, Sarkozy has held three closed-door sessions with top ministers about the cocoa-producing nation which all led to him reiterating his calls for Gbgabo to go and for the violence to stop.

Gbagbo has always blamed Paris for supporting the north in the 2002-03 war. He has played the anti-French card, labeling Ouattara the West’s man and himself as a defender against foreign interference.

As the conflict has worsened those attacks have become harsher.

“There is an international plot that wants a coup d’etat,” Toussaint Alain, Ggbagbo’s European adviser, told Reuters on Friday. “There are two powers — France and the United States — that have interfered in the crisis (and) have manipulated the U.N. Security Council.”

All 15 council members voted on March 30 for a second resolution, this time drafted by France and Nigeria, that echoes earlier U.N. calls for Gbagbo to step down, sought to prevent the use of heavy weapons in Abidjan and slapped further sanctions on Gbagbo and his entourage.

French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said it was the only way to stop the civil war, but just days later, the resolution appears to have done little but exacerbate the situation and leave Paris in a quandary as to what to do next.

“In the eyes of the French government, the “great arranger” of this zealous campaign of sanctions, how important is it basically whether Laurent Gbagbo or Alassane Ouattara is the winner of the election?,” said Pierre Sane, former Amnesty International secretary general and now president of think tank Imagine Africa.

“But for Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made it his personal affair … who knows? Result: French diplomacy in Africa continues to be caught up in confusion of personal interests, networks and logic of the state.”

(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Jeffrey Heller)

Analysis: French options limited in Ivory Coast