Imperialist France Destroys an African Air Force

During those first demonstrations against the war on Iraq, when some marchers sported “Chirac for President!” and “Vive la France” placards, I thought all the Francophilia naïve. France is, after all, an imperialist country, and while a midget in comparison with the U.S. juggernaut, it has some 33,000 troops stationed at bases in the Caribbean, Polynesia, East and West Africa, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. In recent history as a NATO member, it has routinely joined with the U.S. in conducting imperial crusades in the Persian Gulf (1991), the Balkans (1993-present), and Afghanistan (2001-present). It retains colonies in the Caribbean, South America, the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, and a dominant role in the economies of some foreign colonies.

Chirac’s government challenged the U.S. on Iraq, not because of some higher Gallic moral standard, nor because of cozy business ties with Saddam (such as the neocons alleged as they pronounced this old ally an “enemy”). It opposed the invasion because it understood its goal: to secure U.S. hegemony over the entire, strategically located and oil-rich Middle East, to ensure that in what the neocons posit as the “New American Century” no other power (including a united Europe) will be able to challenge America’s “full spectrum dominance” of the planet.

We are back to the early twentieth century, to the world before the socialist camp and Cold War, when international conflicts stemmed from mere competition for resources, markets, and turf. But in this particular phase of inter-capitalist rivalry, the leading powers opposing U.S. imperial designs (France, Germany, Russia, etc.) can sometimes appear as the proponents of gentility and reason. This is because the neocon-led global power grab by a single hyperpuissance (French for “hyperpower”) is so blatant, so nakedly dependent on the cultivation of fascistic idiocy among impressionable strata of the American people, that its international opponents can pose as cultured and moderate. They can posture as proponents of what Albert Camus called la mesure, and as guardians of a civilized history of multilateralism and international accords. But it is only a pose.

As if to extend an olive branch to the deeply miffed hyperpower, France cooperated with the U.S. in “restoring order” in Haiti following the orchestrated ouster of the democratically-elected regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide last February. Snubbing diplomatic efforts by the association of Caribbean states (CARICOM) to prevent Aristide’s overthrow by foreign-funded thugs, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (the same official who had a year before eloquently denounced U.S. plans to attack Iraq, receiving warm applause from the UN General Assembly) declared that the Aristide government had “already shaken off constitutional legality.” While the U.S. dispatched to Haiti some 2,200 marines from the 24th Expeditionary Unit, the French redeployed 300 troops from their nearby colony of Martinique “to ensure the safety of French citizens” in what was once the most prosperous French colony in the Americas. By April about 1,000 French forces were working with U.S. and Canadian troops to stabilize the unruly Black state, while Aristide in exile railed against the injustice of his state-sponsored kidnapping.

Whatever the fate of the Haitians, the French had indicated good will towards the U.S. in offering such unexpected assistance to Washington’s effort to depose an unreliable client. (Among other things, Aristide had accepted Cuban assistance, in the form of hundreds of physicians providing invaluable assistance—which France had actually praised and considered underwriting in 2000.) And this was not all. While providing about 10% of the “international forces” working with the U.S. in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, France further aligned with Washington by cosponsoring an unusual UN resolution (1559) in September demanding the withdrawal of foreign (Syrian) troops in Lebanon, which, like Haiti, is a former French colony. The Lebanese state had not requested the vote. The Syrian troops, authorized by the Arab League, have been stationed in Lebanon for three decades. Licit or not, their presence is hardly more offensive to regional sensibilities than the U.S. occupation of Iraq, or the Israeli occupation of Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian land. President Chirac surely understands that this resolution is designed to build the case for “regime change” in Syria as planned by the U.S. and Israeli governments. But this time, he’s apparently on board the programme.


The Main Sanglante of Chirac in Côte d’Ivoire

So it is perhaps appropriate that this hypocritical French regime receive its comeuppance at the hands of the people of another former French possession, placed midway between Haiti and Lebanon: Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The West African nation, gradually colonized by Frenchmen from 1637 and granted formal independence in 1960, is the jewel in crown of France’s former African empire, producing four-tenths of the world’s cocoa. Half the population is employed in the production of cocoa and coffee. Despite wild fluctuations in the prices of these products, they have historically sustained one of the most prosperous economies in West Africa; from 1960 to 1980, the Ivorian economy grew about 8% per year. The city of Abidjan remains the financial center of West Africa. But from the seventies, when world prices for its products fell while imports necessary for its infrastructure rose, the country has fallen deeply into debt and now suffers from high unemployment, crime, and the AIDS crisis. IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs have contributed to decline. Growth has been negative since 2000. In June the World Bank withdrew support.

French corporations deserve much of the blame for the deteriorating situation. They dominate the economy, described by the International Crisis Group as a “kind of Enron-type structure of front companies, secret bank accounts, and transfer of funds with multiple layers of insulation between the criminal acts and their eventual beneficiaries.” French capital controls privatized telecommunications, electricity, water and transport sectors. France supplies 33% of Côte d’Ivoire’s imports and receives 19% of its exports, and guarantees the CFA franc (franc of the French Community in Africa) that serves as the Ivorian currency.

Until recently 20,000 French citizens lived in Côte d’Ivoire. France has maintained a military base in Abidjan since the 1960s. The colonial master never really left, but nurtured an eerily stable political order until a military coup toppled the president in 1999. After a turbulent interval the current president, Laurent Gbagbo, took power, but in late 2002, having survived a coup attempt, he lost control over the northern (mostly Muslim) half of the country. A brief civil war followed, ending with the signing of the French-sponsored Linas-Marcoussis Peace Accord in January 2003. This brought northern rebel forces (the New Forces or FN) into the government, and UN peacekeepers to monitor a cease-fire. (The French had already augmented their 1200 troops in the country with 500 Foreign Legionnaires, paratroopers and Marines, making for the largest French military deployment in Africa in two decades. Under an unusual arrangement, the present force of 4000 French soldiers is part of the UN force but under separate command.)

The agreement has repeatedly broken down. Government forces killed 120 demonstrators in Abidjan in March, prompting a brief NF withdrawal from the government. The UN High Commission for Human Rights called the attack “carefully planned and executed operation by the security forces…and the so-called parallel forces under the direction and responsibility of the highest authorities of the state.” Last month the NF and an opposition party again stepped down, while fighting resumed. On November 4, on Gbagbo’s orders, the government began “a full-scale assault” on rebel-held areas, and aircraft began daily air strikes on the north. Two days later, nine French soldiers (referred to in the mainstream media as “peacekeepers”) were killed by an air strike. This may well have been an accident; “Ivory Coast is not at war with France,” Gbago declares, “and gave no order to kill these French troops.”

But the French responded with a calculated attack, ordered by Jacques Chirac himself, on the Ivorian state. They destroyed its air force of two fighter jets and some helicopters on the tarmac in the capital of Yamoussoukro, predictably prompting enraged citizens to explode in huge anti-French protests. So far over 60 have been killed, and over 1000 injured, in anti-French rioting. The French say they will hold Gbagbo responsible for such riots, which is tantamount to saying they plan to get rid of him to better reassert neocolonial control. On November 9 French forces opened fire on pro-government demonstrators in Abidjan, killing seven and injuring about 200. The Ivorian regime seems genuinely puzzled at the behavior of these hostile “peacekeepers.” “We love France, it is a friendly country,”‘ declares the ambassador to France, Philippe Djangone-Bi, but he questions their right to “fire at our presidential palace, destroy our forces, humiliate us, and shoot at our civilians from helicopters.” You might suppose that Ivory Coast would protest to the UN, but of course France wields veto power in the Security Council. The UNSC has however issued a resolution condemning the killing of the nine Frenchmen, and demanding that the Ivorian government adhere to the 2003 French-brokered peace accord.

Several thousand of the 14,000 French citizens remaining in the Ivory Coast now await evacuation. The former colony has become a dangerous place for them. Several dozen white women have been raped. “The government is pushing to kill white people,” claims an evacuee quoted Nov. 10 by CBS News, while a UN spokesman, Philippe Moreux, reports that crowds are chanting “All the whites out,” and “Everybody get his white!” Such an outcome of French-UN intervention should not come as a surprise. Already in January 2003 Libération ran an article headlined, “France caught in a trap,” comparing French involvement in Côte d’Ivoire to the U.S. in Vietnam. “First, we send soldiers to protect our nationals,” declared diplomatic correspondent Christophe Ayad. “Then, we send more soldiers to protect the soldiers protecting our nationals. In the end, we send soldiers to decide a war.” Nearly two years later, France remains ensnared, with too much at stake to detach itself, given global addiction to chocolate and caffeine (and petroleum, rubber and palm oil). Mais bien sur, France must prevail in this struggle with the anti-white fanatics. “Terroristes,” should be call them?

Ironically Washington, rankled at French intransigence on the Iraq attack, initially opposed the French deployment. In January 2003 State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that UN backing for French troops would be “inappropriate.” But in February the U.S. agreed with a UN resolution endorsing it. Today the neocons bogged down in Iraq must be smacking their lips with satisfaction to see their sometimes uncooperative ally faced with its own untidy imperial crisis. Meanwhile, those in the U.S. antiwar movement who once idolized Monsieur Chirac should note the obvious. France, too, is an imperialist country, constantly creating new enemies among weak, humble people who resort to whatever means are available to resist their oppression. The French president, like the American, has a lot of blood on his hands.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: