Cynicism at the Head of the State: Jacques Chirac Deliberately Had French Soldiers and American Aid Worker Killed in Order to Activate “Regime Change” in Côte d’Ivoire

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On February 23, French investigative judge Sabine Kheris requested from the public prosecutor of Paris that former French president Jacques Chirac’s ministers of interior, defense, and Justice be heard by the Court of Justice of the Republic. Michel Barnier, Alliot-Marie, and Dominique de Villepin are suspected of having participated in a macabre scheme where 9 French soldiers and 1 American aid worker were deliberately killed by order of Chirac to stir international outrage against President Laurent Gbagbo’s government and justify “regime change” in Cote d’Ivoire … French politicians are groomed to wallow in war, violence and corruption. This is one measure of French exceptionalism. France’s cynicism, indeed, can be of disconcerting morbidity.

Indeed, one of the events that precipitated America’s hostility against President Gbagbo’s government and helped consolidate France’s coalition against the elected Ivorian President in 2010 took place in the rebels’ stronghold of Bouaké. In effect, a year after the Marcoussis Agreements that had seen the composition of a “government of national reconciliation” in which France insisted that the rebels that attacked Gbagbo’s legitimate government in 2002 be fully integrated, little progress had been achieved in disarming the rebellion, reunifying the country, and restoring full civilian administration on the entire Ivorian territory as had been agreed upon.

In spite of enormous sacrifices consented to by the authorities of Abidjan, the rebel leaders (Guillaume Soro and Dramane Ouattara) continued to taunt the legal authorities. In fact, the rebels had established a parallel administration in the northern and western regions of the country, with their own taxation system networks, and were siphoning the agricultural and geological resources as well as racketeering in the population through a plethora of occult passage fees on the northern roads. So, in early November 2004, President Gbagbo decided the time had come to end the partition of his country and halt the bleeding of the Ivorian economy by taking decisive military action. He set about weakening the rebels’ positions with airstrikes and had the infantry move in next. He called on President Chirac to inform him of his intention. According to former French Ambassador Gildas Le Lidec, a furious Chirac scolded Gbagbo like a master would a schoolchild. In an audition he gave in his jail cell at The Hague, Gbagbo described his conversation with Chirac as being very hard: [Chirac] asks me what I am thinking. He is shocked that my army wants to attack the rebels. I say “don’t you think it’s normal? These people stifle us, do not respect the agreements.” I add that he did nothing to disarm them. Our conversation was very hard. I do not know who hung up first but it was very hard. I learned later that Barnier [French Foreign Minister] told Chirac that he had gone too far; that he did not have to talk to me like that.9

Chirac’s paternalistic posture and his evident bias in favor of the rebels reinforced Gbagbo’s resolve to take his responsibilities as the leader of a sovereign country. On November 6, 2004, two Ivorian Sukhoi 25’s flown by two Byelorussians pilots, Barys Smahine and Yuri Sukhos, assisted by Ivorian Lieutenant Colonel Ange Gnanduillet and Lieutenant Patrice Oueï, took off for Bouaké and heavily bombarded the rebels’ positions, weakening their military infrastructures. Around 1:30 p.m. the planes made a second round in Bouaké, then one of them circled the French military camp established on the ground of Lycée Descartes once. On its second pass, it dropped its rockets on the camps, killing nine French soldiers and one American humanitarian worker and wounding 39 other people.

Immediately, and quite understandably, all fingers pointed at President Gbagbo as having ordered the killings. After all, it was his plane and his army, and it was now no secret that he had launched Opération Dignité, whose objective was to end the protracted rebel occupation of the north and reunify the country. Nevertheless, did Gbagbo actually order the attack on the French camp? What would he gain by making such a move? When passions quieted down and cool headedness returned, the facts started to tell another story. It became increasingly clear that the victims of the Bouaké bombing were all the collateral damages of a sinister ploy by the French authorities to indict and attack Gbagbo and operate a regime change.

The Bouaké attack was supposed to be a controlled blunder attributable to Gbagbo. Unfortunately, the plot did not work as planned, and the controlled gaffe eluded its planners. Years after the attack on the French camp, those who really sought to understand how it happened, such as Jean Balan, a lawyer representing 22 of the victims in the bombing, were unambiguous in charging the French authorities with orchestrating the airstrike. Mr. Balan’s difficulty in getting the French authorities to cooperate in resolving the issue, crossed with his own findings, led him to conclude that the Bouaké attack was a conspiracy by the Elysée to use French soldiers as pawns in a macabre game to justify a war against Gbagbo: “I accuse the political authorities of the time of sabotaging the investigation by all means possible. The victims are nothing but the collateral damages of a very dangerous and ill- managed game by the French President [Jacques Chirac] to set his scores with Laurent Gbagbo.”10 After having questioned hundreds of witnesses ranging from low-ranking soldiers to generals who had been subpoenaed by two judges of the Military Court of Paris and later by Judge Sabine Kheris of the District Court of Paris, Balan confidently stated, “The facts are established today. The attack against the French camp was deliberate, but the deaths were not intentional. The objective was to find a reason to get rid of Gbagbo…. Today, no one denies the evidence. They just try to avoid the question or obstruct justice.”11 Like Balan, French General Henri Poncet, who was in charge of the French operations in Côte d’Ivoire at the time of the event, stated unambiguously that the deaths of the French soldiers were an orchestrated bungle by the French authorities which did not go as planned. The expression General Poncet used before a judge of the army court was that it was “a manipulated blunder.” For French pilot Jean-Jacques Fuentes, the Byelorussian pilot of the Sukhoi that fired the rockets on the French camp had received contradictory orders directly from the Elysée asking him to shift targets and hit the French camp instead.12 The French authorities, as the investigations revealed, were closely informed of the itinerary and objectives of the operation. Gbagbo’s army Chief-of-Staff, General Mathias Doué, kept the French authorities au fait of the details of Opération Dignité to ensure that the airstrikes would not cause any French casualties.

On November 6, 2004, at the time of the strike the officers’ mess was supposed to be empty, and the French authorities bet on a strike without casualties, which would be good enough pretext, all the same, to pin down Gbagbo. Unfortunately for them, nine French soldiers and one American humanitarian worker, unaware of the deadly game of chess being played by the French authorities, had unexpectedly taken refuge under the porch of the mess. The French authorities’ attempt to obstruct the emergence of truth on the matter started in the very hours that followed the attack. Upon their landing in Yamoussoukro, rather than being arrested by the French soldiers that guarded the airport, the Byelorussians were instead surreptitiously put on a bus with 15 other of their compatriots working as mechanics for Gbagbo’s army—whom General Poncet had arrested and was hoping to question—and exfiltrated out of the country towards Togo. In Abidjan, General Poncet was ordered by his superiors in Paris to let them go free. In Togo, the mysterious travelers’ suspicious behavior alarmed the Togolese Interior Minister, who ordered their arrest and immediately contacted the French intelligence services representative in Togo. For ten days the Togolese Interior Minister had the suspects in custody. He understood that Paris wanted nothing to do with them. So, he too let them leave and never heard from them again.

When the French Foreign Affairs Minister-become-Interior Minister, Dominique de Villepin, was questioned by the judges on the issue he simply acted dumb and explained that he knew nothing about the affair, absolutely nothing. For Balan, it is as if de Villepin had suddenly never heard of Côte d’Ivoire: “He knows nothing, nothing at all. Listening to him, it is as if he had never heard of Côte d’Ivoire.” French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie justified the release of the suspects by the fact that there existed no international warrant allowing France to question them, to which the victims’ lawyer retorted as follows: “Michèle Alliot-Marie lied deliberately … [and] the case would have been quickly resolved if from the beginning the French authorities had allowed justice to run its course. The juridical context existed.” And, indeed, the context for questioning the suspects existed. French law had three arsenals for bringing them to justice:

First, the Pelchat law of April 14, 2003, which represses the activity of mercenaries. Secondly, Article 65 of the Code of Military Justice provides that are amenable to the Army Court all perpetrators or accomplices of an offense against the French armed forces. Finally, Article 113-7 of the Criminal Code states that French criminal law is applicable to any crime committed by a foreigner outside the territory of the Republic when the victim is a French national.13

Were the French authorities really interested in finding the truth, they could have activated any one of these juridical arsenals available to them and retained the suspects for questioning. Instead, they put the suspects on a bus and maneuvered to get them out of Africa.

The fact that the original plans went terribly wrong did little to curb the French authorities’ intention to remove President Gbagbo from office. Au contraire, in the hours following the manufactured attack, in a sinister turn of events the bungled controlled bungle gave the French authorities even greater justification to carry on their seditious endeavor. In Yamoussoukro and in Abidjan, French soldiers executed Chirac’s order to destroy Côte d’Ivoire entire army’s planes on the ground, a decision that undermined the Ivorian Defense Force’s ability to defend its territory from the rebellion and strengthened the latter’s position.

On the night of November 6, a human tide of angry young patriots decided to walk to the French army camp in Port- Bouët to protest the French army’s destruction of the Ivorian defense infrastructures. Over the two bridges that link the northern suburbs of Abidjan to the southern suburbs, French helicopters were positioned, waiting for them. As the first wave of the crowd reached the middle of the bridges, they were greeted with live rocket fire. Many died of bullet wounds. Many panicked and jumped to their deaths. To this day, it is difficult to know how many people perished in the savage attack. On November 8, in the heat of the popular protests against the French army’s carnage on the young patriots, a convoy of French tanks coming from Bouaké was supposedly sent to Abidjan to secure the Hôtel Ivoire, a location where French citizens were said to be gathering for imminent evacuation. The Hôtel Ivoire is the tallest and most unmistakable building in Abidjan. It is located on Boulevard Latrille, one of the largest boulevards of the Ivorian capital, in the affluent suburb of Cocody. Allegedly the tank convoy “got lost” and, coincidentally, ended up in a much smaller street, right in front of the gates of President Gbagbo’s official residence. The fable of the “lost regiment” was another manufactured blunder by the Chirac regime, whose aim was to remove President Gbagbo and find a “convenient” substitute, the international community’s poster boy, that is, Dramane Ouattara. While Ouattara was patiently waiting for the plot to be fully cooked up, Gbagbo’s prospective temporary replacement, army Chief-o f-Staff Mathias Doué, was said to be in one of the lost tanks, ready to take over. Doué, it was expected, would briefly take power after the coup, put in place a transitional government and within six months organize a presidential election that would result in Ouattara’s landslide victory. It was to be a repeat of Gueï’s regency, but this time with a tightly guarded result by the French authorities. Doué was going to do what Gueï refused to do. He was going to put Ouattara in the Presidential Palace. This nth plan to topple Gbagbo failed. On November 8, 2004, thousands of young patriots, who had been alerted of the rolling tanks from Bouaké, had sensed the coup in preparation and had formed a human barrier to protect the Presidential Palace. Evidently their suspicion was right, given the final destination of the regiment. However, the French army would not retreat without satisfying its thirst for Ivorian blood as, once again, at the Hôtel Ivoire, the French army shot and killed scores of young Ivorians without the international community’s uttering a peep.

Years later, the explanation to cover the attempt to remove President Gbagbo would be a rosary of incongruities. In May 2010, Michèle AlliotMarie stated under oath to Judge Sabine Kheris that the column of tanks that “lost its way” and ended up in front of the Presidential Palace was going to secure the residence of the French Ambassador, which was contiguous to Gbagbo’s residence. Her statement was contradicted by General Poncet and the officer whose mission was to guide the column. While General Poncet explained that the French guide panicked and got lost on his way to Hôtel Ivoire, the French guide stated that, indeed, he got lost on his way to Hôtel Ivoire, but not because he panicked. His GPS instruments panicked and gave him false information. It was General Poncet’s deputy, General Renaud Malaussène, who finally stopped the runaround and told the truth about the events of November 6–8, from the attack on the Bouaké French military camp to the story of the “lost tanks”: There was a political project in place to install Ouattara and get rid of Gbagbo, who was an intelligent, cultured, and refined man, who had weathered many crises, and who, deep in his heart, loves France…. I am convinced that it was not Gbagbo’s intention to kill any French soldier. Someone in his entourage took that initiative without his knowing…. I believe that the presidential camp fell in a trap.14

The political project to put Ouattara in Gbagbo’s place finally succeeded on April 11, 2011, because a spineless Ban Ki-Moon and a weak Obama in search of gumption blindly followed Sarkozy in his illegal Ivorian adventure. Today, Gbagbo is sitting at the International Criminal Court under false accusations while in Côte d’Ivoire a dictatorship propped up by the international community is festering in the Ivorian social fabric.

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