Friday, January 28, 2011

Arab Unrest: The Suspicious French Connection

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )
copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

France Plays Suspicious Role in Countries in Crisis

By Julio Godoy

PARIS, Jan 27, 2011 (IPS) - The three African states in which political crises have recently erupted – Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Tunisia – all feature a strong French economic presence as well as close military and political ties to the former European colonial power, with France at times playing a protective role towards elites accused of abuses.

In Tunisia, where a popular revolt earlier in January ousted kleptocratic dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power, some 1,250 French enterprises constitute the core of the country’s economy.

These enterprises cover practically all economic sectors, from the textile and apparel industry to microelectronics, automobiles, aeronautics, and services. According to official figures, French investments in Tunisia amounted to 140 billion euro in 2009, making France the Maghreb country’s primary economic partner.

Many of these French enterprises enjoy close links to Ben Ali’s family. For instance, 49 percent of the telecommunications operator Orange Tunisie belongs to the former French state monopolist France Telecom. The other 51 percent belongs to Investec, the investment company owned by Marwan Mabrouk, Ben Ali’s son-in-law, who has been accused of corruption.

This economic involvement in Tunisia and the French enterprises’ collusion with the corrupt regime may explain why all French regimes since 1987, from Francois Mitterrand to Nicholas Sarkozy, have adopted a complacent attitude towards Ben Ali, despite well-founded allegations of mass corruption and gross human rights violations against him.

This French complacency towards Ben Ali reached its climax on Jan 14, the eve of the dictator’s escape from Tunis.

Two days before, in the face of the popular revolt against Ben Ali’s regime and its bloody repressive response which left more than 100 people killed, the French minister of foreign affairs, Michelle Alliot-Marie, offered police and military aid to the government in Tunis "to pacify" the country.

Alliot-Marie also emphasised that the right to demonstrations must be respected equally to the right to security. According to several sources, she proposed the aid with the express support of French president Nicholas Sarkozy.

Yet another French minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, in charge of culture, said that, "to call Tunisia a dictatorship is an exaggeration". When Ben Ali was forced to leave the country on Jan 14, these statements became a major embarrassment for French diplomacy.

A group of French intellectuals, led by Etienne Balibar, emeritus professor of political philosophy at the University of Nanterre, northwest of Paris, recalled that France’s foreign policy "has been characterised by a dishonourable tradition of complacency towards the Tunisian dictatorship".

Balibar said that, after the ousting of Ben Ali, it was France’s duty to support the legitimate democratic demands of the Tunisian people. He also pointed out that official French arguments used in the past to support the Tunisian dictatorship, including its alleged support in the so-called war against terror, proved to be wrong.

In April 2008, during a visit to Tunis, Sarkozy had praised Ben Ali’s repression of the Islamic opposition. While Ben Ali had indeed crushed Muslim and all other opposition, the plain truth is that radical Islam never presented a real threat to Tunisia.

Reports by the French secret services, leaked by the daily newspaper Le Monde, confirm this appraisal. According to Le Monde, the French secret services show "cautious optimism" about radical Islam in Tunisia.

French economic links are also important in Niger, where a military junta on Feb 2010 overthrew Mamadou Tandja.

The junta argued that Tandja, who in late 2009 had called for a referendum to obtain a third presidential mandate, attempted to violate the constitution and had become corrupt because of fees from the uranium mines concession given to the French state-owned company Areva.

Uranium represents 70 percent of the country’s total exports. Areva is the main investor in Niger.

By the same token, French economic and military presence in the Côte d’Ivoire may have influenced French behaviour towards president Laurent Gbagbo who, according to international observers, lost the 2010 elections.

Some 700 major French companies control the Ivoirian economy, from the lucrative exploitation of cacao fields and exports, to infrastructure and telecommunications. According to official figures, the French companies established in the Côte d’Ivoire pay some 50 percent of total taxes in the country.

Gbagbo, who took office in late 2000 in the aftermath of an undemocratic election, is seen as responsible for the unrest that has pervaded the West African country ever since. He introduced the racist concept of "ivoirité" in the local constitution to deny civil rights to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have lived in the country for generations.

The main opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara of Burkinabe origin who according to international monitors won the elections last November, was once excluded from local politics because of not being "ivoirité".

Since 2002, Côte d’Ivoire has practically been divided into two. An armed rebel group occupied the north of the country, while the southwest, especially the political capital Yamoussoukro and the economic heart Abidjan, remained in Gbagbo’s hands.

A U.N. peacekeeping force, led by the French military, guaranteed the country’s division and extended its protection over Gbagbo’s stronghold in the southwest of the country and a shaky reconciliation between the government and the rebels.

But elections scheduled first for 2005 and later for 2008 were postponed, allowing Gbagbo to continue ruling the country. Curiously, since the outbreak of the civil war, French corporations invested some 270 billion euro in the West African country, proving that local insecurity is not detrimental to business.

No wonder, then, that Gbagbo is not ready to accept his electoral defeat. The international indignation about Gbagbo’s continued tenure may be loud but the support by the French military and companies has been more effective.

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28 January 2011
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