Adrian Hamilton: France must get out of Ivory Coast – and fast

International Studies
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The Independent Online

We're back to the future, back to the 19th century, as you watch France in all its martial glory in Ivory Coast and in Libya. Supporters of the deposed ex-president Laurent Gbagbo say with some bitterness, and political intent, that he was only taken because of the intervention of French troops.

It's an impression that the French government is ambivalent about. Eager to win popular plaudits for its actions back home, it likes the headlines. Not wanting to be accused of old-fashioned colonial meddling, on the other hand, it's not too enthusiastic about confirming the fact. Indeed it made absolutely certain this week that the final seizure of the besieged Gbagbo was done by President Alassane Ouattara's troops. No pictures of an African chief frogmarched out of his bunker by French forces, thank you very much.

But that's the truth of it. President Sarkozy, caught out by the Tunisian uprising and the Arab Spring in France's own traditional sphere of influence in North Africa, has gone into hyperactive mode to project French arms as the saviour of democracy in West and North Africa.

He's done it in Abidjan. After more than a week of heavy and unresolved fighting, it was the decision of the French forces, helped by UN helicopter gunships, to throw the full force of their troops into the assault that finally drove Gbagbo from his last redoubt.

It has not been so fortunate in Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi still stands defiant despite the full force of French and British air attacks. The public assault on Nato allies by Alain Juppé, the French Foreign Minister, this week was a reflection not just of Paris and London's irritation that their partners in this war were not doing more to wage it, but also a reflection of the growing frustration that air superiority was not bringing the final result of regime change they had hoped for.

They were pretty naïve ever to have thought it would. The lesson of post-war crises from the Balkans to Afghanistan is that air power alone is not enough to change the balance on the ground. You need boots on the ground and that, after our experience in Iraq, is no longer acceptable to the international community or the domestic public.

France has now to get out of Ivory Coast – and quickly – if it is not to fuel the belief that the imposition by force of Alassane Ouattara as the rightful President was done in support not so much of democracy as of French interests.

Nor does the home public seem as excited by feats of arms as they were a century or so ago. The French government may greet the capture of Gbagbo as "a great day for France" but there is little sign that Sarkozy's opinion polls, which have sunk to all-time lows, have benefited much. Failure to achieve a quick result in Libya may partly account for this, but then Sarkozy was always wrong to seek the "bubble reputation" in the cannon's mouth in this way. War isn't a football game, and pursuing it for reasons of domestic popularity usually ends in tears.

Regime change is not up to outside forces, particularly those with a colonial past. Their job is one of political influence and soft power. Which is where one has come to despair so much of Libya.

This is a European problem. The EU, not Britain or France, have the means and the opportunity to succour democracy and squeeze autocracy. Yet what is now the attitude of European leaders to the situation in Tunisia, where it all started?

It is to put a hand up against all movement of people from that country, and to berate Italy for allowing in a wave of migrants across the Mediterranean. If Europe is to mean anything in this Arab Spring, it is to represent values which the Arab young appreciate and a wider Europe which they can join.

And the instant response of Germany and France to the thought that more people may slip across to the EU in the general upheaval? It is to say: not to us, thank you.

Italy, which has become half-hysterical over boat people landing on its shores (it has reason, given their numbers) reaches an agreement with Tunisia to repatriate new arrivals from 5 April in exchange for granting temporary residence to the 23,000 Tunisians already on Italian soil.

Cue outrage in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Austria – all home to particularly nasty anti-immigrant sentiments – for fear that the poor Tunisians would then use the opportunity to move on to France and other countries.

No wonder Italy's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, declared bitterly on Monday: "Italy has been left alone. I wonder whether in this situation it makes sense to remain in the European Union." He has a point.

Race for space has been a barren one

Competing in a space race is, one supposes, better than trying to outdo each other in bombers. But it is hard to witness the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight without a sense of the waste of it all.

No one doubts the achievement. It took some courage to go there. But Soviet pre-eminence was an act of essentially barren prestige which led both Moscow and Washington to spend huge sums that would have been better directed to unmanned space exploration and the alleviation of poverty and disease at home.

"We were first into space, we have a huge number of achievements, we don't want to lose our advantage," said the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, at the celebrations. But he didn't explain what precisely that advantage was.