Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara starts a three-day visit to France on Wednesday. The trip, during which he will sign a security accord with Paris, is seen as marking the end of 10 years of stormy relations with his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo.
Ouattara can expect a warm reception from French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace but the high point of the visit will be on Thursday when he will sign a new “defence and security agreement”.
It will see France’s military force in Côte d’Ivoire, known as Licorne (Unicorn), reduced to 300 troops, whose official mission will be to train their Ivorian counterparts.
France’s Licorne force is currently 450-strong, down from 1,600 at the height of Paris’s dispute with Gbagbo and the fighting that followed 2010’s disputed presidential election.
The intervention of French and UN troops to counter the heavy weapons of Gbagbo’s supporters was a decisive factor in Ouattara’s victory over his rival.
The visit should mean “a return to normal relations between the two countries” after the Gbagbo era that was marked by “incomprehension and mistrust”, according to Ivorian presidential spokesperson Bruno Koné.
Since Ouattara’s investiture in May 2011, France has unblocked 400 million euros of loans and is now planning a “contract to end debt and aid development” worth two billion euros.
Gbagbo’s supporters accuse Ouattara of being a puppet of France.
Côte d’Ivoire, which was a French colony from 1893 to 1960, is the richest economy in French-speaking west Africa, largely thanks to cocoa production.
France is its biggest trading partner today, as was also the case under Gbagbo’s rule.