John Lichfield: A success for France's army, but a failure of its diplomacy

The Ggabgo loyalists will claim that their man is a victim of French post-colonial ambition

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Was the "arresting officer" French or Ivorian? Supporters of the veteran leader Laurent Ggabgo were keen yesterday to propagate the legend that their hero was forced to relinquish his grip on office by French special forces. Paris was equally determined to rubbish this claim and insist that no French soldier entered the presidential residence.

The argument is important – but also beside the point. It is important because Mr Gbabgo's supporters will try to keep his myth – and the Ivorian civil war – alive by saying that he was toppled by the wicked ex-colonial power.

It is beside the point because, whether or not a French boot entered the grounds of the presidential palace, it is clear that it was the French military which finally swayed the battle for Abidjan in favour of the forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara.

In the end, the French may have felt that they had little choice. A UN resolution gave the 1,600-strong French peacekeeping force – the Force Licorne – the right to intervene to prevent civilian casualties. This right has been interpreted more and more broadly in the last week until, finally, French helicopters and artillery began to pound the forces defending Mr Gbagbo's bunker.

France can – and will – argue that the best way to save civilians in Abidjan from further harm was to take out Mr Gbabgo. But Paris had hoped, in truth, not to have been so overtly involved in the defeat of the ex-president.

If this was a success for the French military, it was a failure for French diplomacy and geo-strategy. In theory, France was "neutral" in last November's election and supported Mr Ouattara's claim – as did the African Union and the UN – only because independent observers declared him the narrow winner.

In reality, France has favoured Mr Ouattara from the beginning. The new Ivorian president is an old friend of Nicolas Sarkozy. The French President, when he was mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, officiated at Mr Ouattara's wedding. Paris lost patience with Mr Gbagbo years ago.

All the more reason, therefore, for Paris to have preferred a "clean" defeat for the Gbagbo forces with fewer French fingerprints on Mr Ouattara's victory. The manner of his ousting, whether or not French special forces were present at the ex-president's arrest, will further complicate hopes of rebuilding a fractured country.

The Ggabgo loyalists will claim that their man is a victim of French post-colonial ambition. The fact that Mr Ouattara needed French military assistance may also weaken his position within his own divided camp.

President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power four years ago saying that it was time for France to adopt a new, more open and healthier approach to "Françafrique" – the name given to its former colonies in Africa. Events in Ivory Coast suggest that bad old habits, and ambiguities, die hard.

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