If any country embodied the spirit of pan-Africanism that swept the continent at the time of independence it was Ivory Coast. The country's vibrant cocoa and coffee industries were built on the sweat of laborers from French-speaking Mali and Burkina Faso and Anglophone Ghana and Nigeria. Millions of new arrivals helped make Abidjan, the commercial capital, one of Africa's most cosmopolitan cities. For many years even the term refugee was considered dirty because, in the words of founding President Félix HouphouŰt-Boigny, citizens of neighboring African countries should be welcomed as "brothers." Not anymore. Today Ivorian society is split along ethnic lines and teeters on the edge of civil war.
Three weeks ago, a group of disgruntled soldiers mutinied after being demobilized. The revolt quickly turned to open conflict between troops loyal to the government of Laurent Gbagbo who came to power two years ago in flawed elections from which opposition parties were barred and rebels allegedly led by General Robert Gue´, who headed a successful 1999 coup, was ousted by Gbagbo in 2000 and shot dead three weeks ago, one of this uprising's early fatalities. The violence which the government has also blamed on neighboring Burkina Faso, Liberia and Sierra Leone has left more than 300 dead and the country divided between rebels in the north and the government in the south.
Worried that an implosion in Ivory Coast could destabilize the region, a group of West African leaders put a 2,500-man intervention force on standby as they negotiated a cease-fire. French and American soldiers also rescued hundreds of their nationals. Late last week the government and the rebels were thrashing out a shaky truce, but Ivory Coast is likely to remain divided.
Gbagbo, like his predecessors, has inflamed racial tensions by pushing an "Ivoirité" policy, which favored natives and left many foreign-born residents with few rights. The rebels have targeted leading proponents of this divisive concept, including Interior Minister Emile Boga Doudou, who introduced new national identity cards that include digital fingerprints and photographs and come in different colours depending on a person's origin. Doudou was shot dead in the rebellion. Government soldiers, meantime, have rounded up foreigners and police burned neighborhoods after President Gbagbo said that they would "clean" insalubrious areas. "We are not safe. We no longer dare go beyond the fence," says Mariah, a refugee from Liberia who lives in a makeshift camp in Abidjan.
Into this confusion, France last week sent some 70 soldiers from the 11th Parachute Brigade to set up a tactical headquarters for the 1,000 French troops already deployed. The troops' arrival marks a shift in France's policy toward her former African colonies. In the past, France regularly sent soldiers to prop up governments and dictators close to Paris. But following criticism of France's role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide France allegedly continued to arm and support Rwanda's Hutu-led government even after the murder of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu began President Chirac declared that the age of unilateral action was over.
The Foreign Ministry in Paris still insists that French troops will not "play an active role in any military conflict." But the French soldiers in Ivory Coast are clearly intended to do more than just distribute food and protect their countrymen. "There is no question of allowing the Ivory Coast to be destabilized," says a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "France supports the legitimately elected government of Laurent Gbagbo."
Faced with the meltdown of what was once the economic powerhouse of francophone West Africa, France has been forced to find a balance between large-scale intervention and doing nothing, says Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "France has taken the middle road, hoping that the mere presence of French forces may act as a deterrent against fighting."
But the French presence may actually further inflame racial divisions. "The French are like our mother and father, but now they are taking sides between one child and the other," rebel spokesman Corporal Serge Kofi told TIME last week. "We had confidence in the French, but giving logistical aid [to government forces] is the same as arming the enemy." With distrust on both sides growing and thousands of Ivorians taking to the streets, the prospects for peace look slim.