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In Ivory Coast, Agitator Rallies ‘Young Patriots’ Against French

Times Staff Writer

A crowd of young Ivorians punched the air and swayed to a West African beat as images flashed onto a screen before them: a headless corpse draped in their country’s flag, French soldiers on tanks, young people protesting. Then, a close-up of the corpse.

The atmosphere of celebration and anticipation in a hall at a district municipal office in Abidjan on Monday contrasted sharply with the horrifying pictures. But more than 1,000 Young Patriots were awaiting the arrival of “Le General” -- their charismatic leader, Charles Ble Goude.

It was Ble Goude who called angry young people onto the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s major city, 11 days ago, accusing the French, the former colonial power, of launching a military coup by retaliating for an attack on their peacekeepers. Thousands of young Ivorians flocked to confront the French military at the airport and the Hotel Ivoire.

But thousands more ran riot for days, attacking homes and destroying businesses. About 5,000 expatriates, most of them French, fled the country in one of the largest such evacuations in the history of post-colonial Africa.

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Ble Goude, a stylishly dressed former student at Britain’s Manchester University who formed the intensely nationalistic Young Patriots two years ago, insists he had nothing to do with the looters.

The Young Patriots have bolstered the ruling party in its disputes with immigrants from other African countries (who make up a large chunk of the population), the civil war with rebels who control northern Ivory Coast and recently its confrontation with the French, whose 4,000 troops are serving alongside 6,000 United Nations peacekeepers here.

Ble Goude, the son of a farmer, has soared to prominence representing the confused aspirations of the country’s discontented youth. He says the country, which gained formal independence from France in 1960, is in the midst of a revolution of independence against French colonialism.

The Young Patriots’ talk is about liberty, democracy, patriotism and unity, but few of the unemployed young men and frustrated students who populate the movement seem to know how to reach those ideals.

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Monday’s gathering was billed as a news conference, but it was more of a political rally and a demonstration to French and other foreign media of Ble Goude’s popularity.

When the crowd had been heated up with infectious music and tragic pictures, he strutted into the hall wearing his trademark black cap, the brim folded up cockily. Two steps up onto the stage, he paused, pumped the air with his fist, then gestured for the crowd to rise.

They were on their feet in an instant.

In person, his comments are often nuanced. In an interview, he denied the persistent reports that the government pays him to get his Young Patriots onto the street. He said many admiring businessmen had sent him gifts.

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“They give me money. They give me cars. They say they’re proud of me.”

He also said he saw himself as “a Martin Luther King figure.”

Among Young Patriots, there is an inflated, wistful sense of the country’s place in Africa and the world -- and a failure to appreciate how devastating the anti-French riots have been for Ivory Coast and its already damaged economy. The world’s largest cocoa producer, Ivory Coast was for decades one of the most prosperous countries in Africa.

The activists’ slogan, “On est fatigue,” or “We’re tired,” is a reference to their impatience with the country’s peace process and their desire to see the rebels defeated. Now that impatience extends to the French military.

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The Ivorian government renewed the war against rebels early this month and bombed French peacekeepers, killing nine of them and one American. The French military struck back by destroying the country’s small air force.

After anti-French riots exploded, more French troops flew in, commandeered the airport and strategic points, evacuated French civilians and fired at demonstrators. The Ivorian government says 70 were killed and 1,500 injured.

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council imposed an immediate arms embargo and threatened both the government and rebels with sanctions if they did not halt the violence and restart peace talks within a month.

Ble Goude told his supporters Monday to “be vigilant” and “protect the areas that are important.”

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Whenever trouble arises in Ivory Coast, young men set up their own checkpoints. The activity offers an immediate sense of control and participation in great events.

That’s what taxi driver Christophe Sibi, 28, did 11 days ago. He was still there Monday, days after any visible French military presence on the streets had evaporated. He had not been home, had slept on a piece of crumpled cardboard each night and seemed unsure of when he would go back to driving.

“We are here till the new order, till everything is better, until I myself judge that everything is OK. I can stay here until the French leave the territory of the Ivory Coast,” he said.

“If a French tank came, it would have to kill me and drive right over me to get through,” he said. Asked if he hated the French, he glowered. “Before, no. Now, yes.”

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Ivory Coast has been on a downhill path since it slipped into political instability and civil war in the late 1990s. There is high unemployment and few chances for young men to escape to Europe or the U.S. Young Patriots blame the French.

“There are no jobs. Everything is expensive,” Sibi said.

Until the riots, French businesses had a prominent role in Ivory Coast, and opponents of the regime warn that their mass departure will cause the economy to sink further.

But one unemployed Young Patriot, Jonas Ouattara, 23, who said he was shot in the abdomen by the French nine days ago, said from his hospital bed that even if the economy declined, it would be worth it to be rid of the French.

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When he had heard Ble Goude’s radio call to get out on the streets, he said, “I couldn’t stay in my house another second.”

Now the Young Patriots are paying his hospital bills and buying anything he needs. In a grand moment, Ble Goude visited his bedside.

For Diei Theophile, 34, the only demand for his small printing business is from the Young Patriots, who order shirts and hats printed with slogans calling for eternal combat.

“I was a Patriot first, before seeing the market,” he said, sitting outside Ble Goude’s rally, doing a brisk trade.

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Inside the hall, Ble Goude accused the French of intentionally killing unarmed demonstrators.

“Is it because we are black that we can be treated this way,” he demanded, “and no one says anything about it?”

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Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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