Many French Fleeing Chaos in Ivory Coast Hope to Return

Times Staff Writer

The airport is littered with camp beds and broken dreams. French people who made their lives and fortunes in this West African country are sleeping here overnight, waiting for a flight out.

Outside, the airport is heavily guarded by French troops. After days of violence in which French businesses and schools were looted and destroyed by angry mobs, thousands of expatriates have packed up their belongings, but few have put away their hopes entirely. Whether in optimism or denial, most want to come back.

“It’s my country,” said Natalie Coppati, 38, who was born in Ivory Coast. Her family came here in 1949, when it was still a French colony, and went into the cocoa and coffee business. “I have cried a lot of tears, and it’s not finished yet. I think in the plane it will be very hard to leave.”


About 15,000 French citizens still live in Ivory Coast more than four decades after the country gained its independence.

Until Saturday, Coppati said, she had never experienced anti-French sentiment. Mobs attacked French-owned businesses and houses after French forces destroyed the small Ivory Coast air force in reprisal for a government airstrike on French peacekeepers in the rebel-held north, which killed nine French soldiers and one American aid worker.

Rioters also destroyed businesses owned by Ivorians, whose country once was one of Africa’s most prosperous and stable.

The violence has sent a powerful message that could scare off foreign investment in the country, one of the world’s biggest cocoa producers -- even if efforts to reinvigorate the peace deal between the government and the rebels, known as the New Forces, succeeds.

Coppati said a mob had surrounded her house, shaking the bars on the windows and shouting, but no one got in.

“I was afraid. A lot of my friends’ houses were attacked,” she said. “They broke everything with a lot of violence. Yesterday I met a woman who was raped by 15 men.”

By Friday evening, 1,870 French citizens had departed, and 510 were waiting for a flight today. Several hundred citizens of Britain and other countries also were waiting to leave.

Ivorians and French alike blame much of the violence on the Young Patriots, a nationalist, pro-government group. Ivory Coast officials have accused the French military of killing dozens of demonstrators, claims that the French deny.

The Young Patriots’ leader, Charles Ble Goude, called out thousands of his supporters to demonstrate and to protect President Laurent Gbagbo from what he said was an imminent French coup.

But Ble Goude said in an interview Friday that he had called only for peaceful demonstrations, and that the mobs of young men who stormed through the streets were not under his control. Ble Goude said he did not want French citizens to leave, only the military.

France has about 4,600 troops in Ivory Coast, 4,000 of them peacekeepers working alongside 6,000 United Nations forces to maintain a buffer zone between northern rebels and southern loyalist forces -- a role that has caused resentment in the south.

Government attacks on rebel positions last week, days before the strike on the French forces, broke an 18-month cease-fire.

Much of the violence in Abidjan unfolded in Zone Quatre, or Zone Four, a neighborhood with many French businesses and residents. In some streets, the mob was discerning. It smashed a hole in the wall of the French-owned Club Le Saint Germain after bypassing several businesses owned by Ivorians or Lebanese.

Elsewhere in Zone Quatre, rioters laid waste to Chez Laurent, a restaurant owned by a Frenchman, Laurent Baolac, who fled the country with his family Wednesday. But they also gutted many nearby businesses, several owned by Ivorians.

Francois Atchoglo, 40, manager at Chez Laurent, was out of a job Friday and disconsolate. He blamed the Young Patriots.

“On Saturday, when the Young Patriot leader called them out, they destroyed everything here,” he said. “When I came here on Tuesday, nothing was left. If they couldn’t take something, they just destroyed it.

“But this is not a patriotic thing to do. It’s not good, because many people will be jobless now and will stay at home with no money.”

A few doors down, Fatimata Fondo, 54, an Ivorian who put her life savings of about $75,000 into an Internet cafe, walked into the empty shell of her business Friday.

“Everything,” Fondo said, repeating the word over and over as she walked from room to empty room -- the 25 computers and everything else taken except for a few papers scattered on the floor. She has no hope of restarting, she said.

But Fondo was careful not to criticize the government. Even some French business people waiting to fly out Friday were reluctant to be quoted on their views about the Ivory Coast government, for fear of reprisals should they return. Many blamed Gbagbo.

“While Gbagbo is here, we can’t do anything,” said teacher Martine Dia, whose school was looted and burned. “He says one thing and does the contrary.”

“It’s clear now this man is a divider,” Coppati said. “I think if Mr. Gbagbo leaves, peace will come back. Ivory Coast is like that -- one day it’s bad, the next day it’s good.”

Ble Goude said he wanted French people to stay in his country -- but said those suffering most were Ivorians.

“The French are only losing money. We are losing our country. We are losing our dignity and we are losing our independence,” he said. “When there’s a crisis, they take a plane and go to France, so they’re not losing their country.”