DESPITE turmoil in Ivory Coast between the supporters of two rival presidents, France is officially avoiding any military action in its old West African colony.
This looks like a change of attitude from more gung-ho actions of the past, such as in 1994 when Jacques Chirac ordered the destruction of the Ivorians' air force (seven warplanes and helicopters) following breaches of peace agreements by the African government.
This time President Sarkozy has said he will intervene only if there is a direct threat to French people in the country. They numbered about 15,000 before the election crisis, though France has been encouraging them to leave and about 2,000 did so by the end of last year.
"Our soldiers have no call to meddle in the internal affairs of Ivory Coast," said the president in a recent speech, while a Foreign Office spokesman said: "We support the efforts of the African Union and the Ecowas [Economic Community of West African States] to resolve the crisis."
Several African leaders have visited to negotiate with Laurent Gbagbo, president of the country since 2000, who is refusing to stand down despite being beaten by rival Alassane Ouattara in elections last December.
According to Bernard Lugan, an expert on France's relations with Africa, France's hands-off attitude is typical of recent foreign policy.
Mr Lugan, author of a comprehensive 2009 history of Africa, said France has now largely abandoned the unilateral interventions in Africa that used to be typical.
The country launched 46 military operations in its former African colonies between 1960 and 2005. In 2007, American academic Christopher Griffin commented to the International Studies Association: "French military interventionism in its former empire appears to be a consistent policy since decolonisation and is coupled with an extensive network of bilateral France-African defence and military assistance treaties."
The US-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank states: "For decades, France viewed post-colonial Africa as its exclusive sphere of influence." It adds that action was usually "ostensibly to protect French nationals or subdue uprisings against legitimate governments".
France still stations thousands of troops in Africa, notably in Chad, Central African Republic and Ivory Coast, although the CFR says: "It has folded many of its African missions into multilateral operations since its unhappy experience in Rwanda in 1994, when French troops failed to intervene in the opening days of that nation's genocide."
Examples of France's activities over the years include sending in paratroops to reinstate Léon M'ba as president of Gabon after a coup in 1964 and to Zaire in the 1970s to defend President Mobutu Sese Seko against rebels.
Mr Lugan said all this had come to an end with Nicolas Sarkozy. "Unlike Chirac, Sarkozy is an Atlanticist. France no longer has its own African foreign policy and in no way takes the kinds of initiatives it did.
"Because France no longer really has an African policy, there are certain pressure groups that try to impose one. Big business and finance support Ouattara; those on the left support Gbagbo, whom they see as fighting against imperialism; and those who are nostalgic for colonialism supported Bédié [who also stood as a candidate]."
France's recent attitude towards Rwanda was another example of its current policies, Mr Lugan said. Over the past decade, relations between the countries were bad, with Paul Kagamé's regime accusing France of training and arming those responsible for the 1994 genocide (which France denied), while France accused President Kagamé of an attack on the plane of a former president that sparked off the massacres.
Now, however, "France has totally aligned itself with the Americans and British, and Kagamé has became a friend", Lugan said. "Sarkozy does not at all have the Gaullist vision that Chirac or Mitterrand had, by which I mean an autonomous African policy."
Mr Lugan said an exception could be made for the Sahel, where France sometimes still took the initiative. "It is made up of little zones in which the EU leaves autonomy to France because we know the terrain well and have military units well adapted to it."
It was "certain" there would be action if Gbagbo was "stupid enough" to target French civilians, and France had enough forces in the area to do so. However, Mr Lugan added: "Gbagbo has every reason to be very nice to the French. He has made no mistake so far and is winning. Ouattara seems to be destabilised and, if he is proposing powersharing, that means he has lost.
"I think we are moving towards a division of the country in two. Gbagbo is not interested in the north; he will keep the rich part of the country in the south."
As often in Africa, the problem is essentially ethnic, not religious, he said; it boils down to antagonism between tribal groups rather than being a matter of Muslims against Christians.
"Everything blew up after the end of the Houphouët-Boigny regime in 1993, and things split into the three big ethnic groups," he said.
Mr Lugan said any sanctions against Gbagbo (annulling visas for him and his followers) were taken at an EU level, not unilaterally by France. The issue went further than just Africa.
"There is no more French foreign policy, just gesticulations by the Foreign Affairs Minister. Since the arrival of Sarkozy in power, everything has been decided in Brussels."
Statements about letting the Africans resolve matters among themselves were an "excuse", he said. "From the moment that you don't have any will to intervene or autonomy, you have to justify this by big principles. This is why they are saying we must leave Africa to play the cards she has to play."
Mr Lugan said the situation was now unlikely to change, although within the context of decisions taken at European level, France was still more likely to intervene in Africa than countries with no historic link to the continent.
"In Europe, the countries with an African tradition and with armies capable of intervening are the UK and France, and the UK has mostly pulled out."
Mr Lugan said regular Africa-France summits (the twenty-fifth since African independence was held in Nice last year) were largely "poor man's colonialism".
"We are still looking back to a past grandeur that no longer exists. By inviting the African nations, France thinks it still plays a role."
Much the same is true of the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF), he said.
"Unlike with the British Commonwealth, which everyone knew from the start was not meant to be taken very seriously, in France we imagine the OIF and summits are serious matters."
FRENCH colonisation under the ancien régime largely consisted of swaths of North America, the West Indies and parts of India, though coastal trading posts were set up in West Africa from the 17th century (including in Ivory Coast), and the Isle de Gorée, off Senegal, was claimed. The French traded for tropical products such as ivory, after which they named the area, as well as slaves.
By the end of First Empire under Napoleon I, France had lost much of its possessions; however, under Napoleon III, in the latter part of the 19th century, France joined other European powers in carving up Africa.
Before 1880, it mainly owned coastal areas - parts of the Maghreb and Senegal - but by the early 20th century it held most of west and some of central Africa. Ivory Coast became a protectorate of France in 1843, and a colony in 1893.
As with the British Empire, calls for independence for France's African colonies grew after the Second World War. Decolonisation was fairly peaceful in much of French Africa, with most, including Ivory Coast, being granted independence
in 1960. Algeria was the notable exception, seeing much violence, with 800,000 people being repatriated to France (its breakaway was especially complicated because it was not merely a colony, but consisted of three overseas departments of France).
Under the first president of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the country became a "model state" for modern Africa, according to Jacques Godfrain, a politician who worked with Africa under the Juppé government (1995-1997). It was
economically sound, based on production of coffee, cocoa and cotton. "Then there was Bédié [see below], the coup d'état by General Gueï and his assassination after the arrival in power of Gbagbo, and today his maintenance in power
without democratic legitimacy."
Timeline since independence
Félix Houphouët-Boigny becomes president in 1960, ruling until his death in 1993. On his death, National Assembly president Henri Konan Bédié takes his place under constitutional rules; he is then elected in 1995.
Bédié is ousted in a coup d'état in 1999 by General Robert Guëi, and flees the country.
Laurent Gbagbo, a southern Christian, becomes president in 2000 in elections from which Alassane Ouattara, a northern Muslim, was excluded because of his "dubious nationality".
In 2002 rebels from the north take control of two thirds of the country.
An agreement is signed at Marcoussis in the Ile-de-France in 2003, creating a "reconciliation" government, open to the rebels, but with Gbagbo remaining president. There are violent anti-French demonstrations and the UN authorises
the deployment of French forces in Operation Unicorn.
In 2004, the Ivorian air force makes raids on rebel bases. France orders the destruction of the seven warplanes that comprised the Ivorian air force. French troops fire on demonstrators in the economic capital, Abidjan.
2007: Agreement signed in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, between the government and rebels.
Events of 2010
On October 31, the first round of new presidential elections were held after having been put off since 2005. After the second round on November 28, the country's Independent Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner.
However the Constitutional Council, a body meant to check the regularity of elections and which is full of Gbagbo appointees, threw out half a million Ouattara votes, saying the election was flawed. The council supports Gbagbo, who
has also retained control of the armed forces.
Ouattara, who had won 54 per cent of the vote, is supported by the UN and the African Union.
Some 200 people are said to have been killed in outbreaks of violence since the disputed elections and, according to Ivory Coast's ambassador to the UN, the country could be "on the brink of genocide". Ecowas (an economic grouping of
west African states) has suspended Ivory Coast and imposed sanctions, saying it may use "legitimate force" if necessary. Ouattara took refuge in a hotel in Abidjan, guarded by UN peacekeepers.
According to New York Times writer Adam Nossiter, Gbagbo, a former history teacher, has become very rich as president, in effect controlling the cocoa industry (the world's largest) and "does not seem to want to go back [to a more
As we went to press, Ouattara had suggested a compromise, allowing some members of Gbagbo's party to form a "composite cabinet".