Anatomy of an Intervention: Why France Joined the U.N. Action in Abidjan

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Issouf Sanogo / AFP / Getty Images

French military mission in Ivory Coast (Licorn) soldiers patrol a street in Abidjan on April 1, 2011.

The United Nations' dramatic military operation in the Ivory Coast civil war came at a crucial juncture in the struggle between the country's two Presidents. Over the weekend, forces supporting Allassane Ouattara, the man recognized as president by most of the international community, arrived at Abidjan, the city where both Ouattara and his rival Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, were holed out. The Ouattara troops had marched in from their northern strongholds, where they had been rebel troops against the Gbagbo's 10-year old regime until Ouattara recently declared them legitimate and dubbed them the Republican Army. They had swept up most of the country as they moved toward the country's richest city and de facto capital. But on Sunday, April 3, Gbagbo forces rallied and pushed the invaders back out to the margins of the city. It was at that point that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon wrote to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In Paris, at the Elysée Palace, Sarkozy gathered with his advisors and key cabinet members to discuss various international situations, including the letter that the French President had gotten that very Sunday from Ban. It asked for Sarkozy's approval to use French forces to participate in strikes on sites used by forces loyal to Gbagbo. The U.N. had its own forces in Ivory Coast, the United Nations Operation in Cote d'Ivoire (ONOCI) — a police and military force of about 9,000 people. But it could use the 1,650 French soliders that formed the Licorne (French for "unicorn") mission, which had been deployed since September 2002 under a bilateral Franco-Ivorian defense accord and, in 2004, had been deputized by the U.N. to help stop a civil war that had erupted ahead of national elections that year.

Ban's letter to Sarkozy pointed out the massacres of civilian populations carried out by Gbagbo forces, attacks that often used heavy artillery shot into non-military centers. "As you know," Ban wrote, "the security situation in the Ivory Coast has gravely deteriorated in the last three days." The U.N. Secretary General went on to note that "in these circumstances, it's urgent that I launch necessary military operations... to put heavy arms used against civilian populations out of commission." In making that decision, Ban cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 1975 that authorized "all means necessary to prevent the use of heavy artillery against the civilian population of the Ivory Coast." Sarkozy gave his permission for the use of Licorne assets.

At 8 p.m. on Monday, April 4, as a torrential rain beat down on Abidjan, two UN MI24 helicopters swooped down on the city along with French Puma and Gazelle attack helicopters. They targetted Gbagbo strongholds used to store heavy artillery and munitions. Also hit were Gbagbo's presidential residence in the Cocody district, his personal home, the Abgan and Akouédo military bases and at least one major munitions dump.

The French have taken great pains to present their involvement as obedient, dutiful order-taking from the United Nations. "There is absolutely nothing unilateral or independent about this, quite the contrary," argues a French diplomat who asked not to be identified. He allowed that "I wouldn't be surprised if President Sarkozy or someone at the meeting somewhere responded to the seriously deteriorating situation in the Ivory Coast and the Secretary General's request for action by saying 'This is Enough; something must now be done.' But the people who are actually saying that the loudest are Ivorians themselves: they elected a new president to power, and are doing what they can to help him take office, despite the violence being deployed against them to prevent them."

The immediate comparison around the world had been to France's leading role in the military intervention in Libya. The diplomat who spoke to TIME rejected any comparison — and certainly not any attempt to make up for being late to respond to crises in France's former colonies (Paris had been criticized for being slow on Tunisia, which like Ivory Coast was formerly ruled by France). "The objective in the Ivory Coast is to allow the president elected in a fair, democratic election by a majority of his citizens to take his rightful office. It is entirely different from the one in Libya, which is essentially to half a civil war and eventually move towards a situation when the people in Libya can elect a leader for the first time." He also points out that the U.N. involvement in Ivory Coast over the years gives the decision to intervene even more legitimacy. "The international community, via the U.N., had agreed on what must happen in the Ivory Coast long ago"

The neat arguments about diplomatic processes do little to hide the animosity toward Gbagbo. On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé denounced Gbagbo and his refusal to comply with the wishes of the international community as "absurd bullheadedness" and asked for reason to prevail "so we can avoid renewed military action." Juppé said, "We've asked the U.N. to guarantee his personal safey, as well as that of his family and to organize his departure. France is there to facilitate that."

But, beyond the fate of Gbagbo, there's a matter the U.N. did not bring up when it talked about attacks on civilians. An alleged massacre that occured in the town of Duekoué where perhaps 1,000 may be among the dead. No one knows if any side is responsible for the killings — or if both are. But it occured between March 27 and 29 as the pro-Ouattara forces were marching through the area and toward Abidjan.