Ouattara visits France

Defense agreements top the agenda during Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara’s first state visit to France since French troops helped ouster his predecessor last year after a bloody standoff.

Ouattara and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will sign a new security agreement Thursday ahead of a state dinner at the Elysee presidential palace.

The visit marks the end of a decade of stormy relations between France and Ouattara's predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, who currently faces war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Relations between Gbagbo and France -- the former colonial power in the cocoa-rich West African nation -- reached a nadir last year when French and UN troops backed pro-Ouattara forces during a post-election standoff that killed approximately 3,000 people.

In sharp contrast to Gbagbo, the Ivorian former IMF official has a warm personal relationship with Sarkozy, according to Nicholas Norbrook, managing editor of The Africa Report magazine. “The key point is there is a genuine affection between the two men,” said Norbrook. “They have a bond that goes beyond simple state friendships.”

Beyond personal friendships, France is also Ouattara’s key military ally.

France's Licorne (Unicorn) peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast has been reduced to 450 troops from what was 1,600 at the height of the crisis. It will soon be reduced to only 300.

“Those French troops are training the Ivorian army, and they’re providing assistance for that country,” said Douglas Yates, professor of political science at the American University of Paris. “But more than that, Ouattara is here to sign a new defense accord, and one of the points in that defense accord is that France will maintain its military base in the country.”

‘I want to thank President Sarkozy’

In an interview with the leading French daily Le Monde shortly after his arrival in Paris, Ouattara showed his gratitude for French support during last year’s post-election crisis.

"I want to thank President Sarkozy and his government for the intervention they led in April under a United Nations mandate. Without France, there would have been in Ivory Coast a genocide worse than in Rwanda," said Outtara.

"France must remain in our country longer and in greater force," he added, citing the rising threat of Islamist militants in other parts of Africa as a reason to bolster his country's defenses.

Shortly after Gbagbo was arrested last year, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said France would seek to reduce its military presence in Ivory Coast. In June 2011, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said France would not seek to maintain a permanent fighting force in the cocoa-exporting nation. "The troop presence will be reduced to units ensuring cooperation, giving advice, training and monitoring - but certainly no longer a significant permanent presence," he said.

Security also remains a major concern in Ivory Coast as Ouattara attempts to reconcile the country's deep internal divisions.

During her visit to Ivory Coast earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that “all Ivorians need to see that the rule of law is working, and that there is impartial justice, a transparent system to ensure that all atrocities are fully investigated, and that the perpetrators, regardless of which side they supported, are held to account.”

Ivory Coast’s simmering tensions were highlighted over the weekend when at least one person died as a meeting of Gbagbo supporters in the Ivorian commercial capital of Abidjan was broken up by people described, by some observers, as Ouattara supporters.

Business on the margins of the visit

While France’s military involvement in last year’s post-election crisis was aimed at promoting democratic governance in an African nation, it also sparked accusations across Africa that France was playing a colonial role in its former colonies.

In a biting indictment of the international intervention in Ivory Coast published in Foreign Policy, for instance, former South African President Thabo Mbeki accused Paris of perpetuating the policies of "Françafrique", a term used to refer to the cozy, often corrupt, official and unofficial networks between the French state and businesses and the elites in the former French African colonies.

France is the main trading partner of Ivory Coast, a former West African powerhouse before the political crises starting in the mid-1990s crippled the country’s economic sector. The country remains, however, the world’s leading supplier of cocoa beans, accounting for more than 40 percent of global production.

As Ivory Coast emerges from years of war, Ouattara hopes to jumpstart the once powerful West African economic engine, having included a number of prominent Ivorian businessmen in his entourage.

“There are a number of Ivorian industrialists who have made the trip from Cote d’Ivoire to Paris,” said Norbrook, using the official French name for the country. “A lot of business will be done on the margins of this visit.”

France 24, Jan. 26th, 2012

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