Stories of French troops being sucked into conflict in Ivory Coast and US forces gearing up for a full scale assault in Fallujah dominated the European press on Monday.
The European press on Monday mainly focused on the eruption of violence in Ivory Coast which claimed the lives of nine French soldiers over the weekend. French troops have been patrolling the streets of the capital after two days of looting and violence which led to a retaliatory attack when the French destroyed the Ivorian air force.
Le Figaro in Paris wrote that the message had to be clear, and it was: you don't attack French soldiers without risking punishment. But the paper went on to say that most people in France were surprised at the attack, since they didn't think French soldiers in Ivory Coast were in much danger. The paper followed up with comments on a more fundamental issue. Almost no-one in France understands what French policy in Ivory Coast is in the short, medium and long-term, it wrote. It's high time for France to become a grown-up democracy, the paper said, one which is able to discuss openly and in a relaxed fashion the big questions which will determine its future, whether it's Turkey, sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East.
Another Paris paper, La Croix, looked at the issue less fundamentally, saying that President Jacques Chirac had put the ball in the court of the Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo. The paper was less than complimentary about him. It's a lie, the paper wrote, for him to describe the French operation as a new colonialism or to describe the soldiers as occupiers. Four years after his election, Gbagbo has demonstrated either his incompetence or his ill will, the paper added. There's little time for him to show that he has left either an ounce of legitimacy or the slightest ability to act.
Several non-French papers also commented on the situation in Ivory Coast. La Repubblica in Rome pointed to the paradox in the current situation: France is defending a regime which hates it and kills its soldiers. On the other hand, it has to oppose a revolt with which it perhaps doesn't sympathize, but which it certainly understands. The last remains of French African grandeur stands on a landscape of rubble, the paper mused poetically, but France knows that if it loses Ivory Coast, it's finally lost the whole of Africa.
The Swiss Basler Zeitung tended to agree. It mused that many in France would be ready to pull the troops out after the latest incidents and leave it to the Africans to solve the crisis. But France feels its responsibilities as the former colonial power, it noted. More important, the paper said, were the strategic interests, the 15,000 French who live there and represent major economic interests. If France didn't have this area of influence, it would be much more difficult for it to feel like a great power. So France will not withdraw.
The German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also noted France's problems with being a would-be great power. "France, whose government kept its fingers clean over the war in Iraq, is now experiencing the problems of a great power in a foreign land," it wrote. Of course France had the right to defend itself from the unprovoked attack by the Ivorian air force, but imagine the outcry if the Americans were to utterly destroy the air force of a nation in a similar case.
On the subject of the Americans and the imminent storming of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Iraq, the European papers appeared to sit like rabbits in front of a snake, fascinated by the oncoming catastrophe as the US and Iraqi forces gather for a major offensive on the city. The Dutch paper, Algemeen Dagblad wrote that the time for the offensive had been carefully chosen -- after the US election. After all, many US soldiers will die.
The British Independent made another point about the timing in a cartoon: it showed President Bush sitting on a very big bomb on its way to Fallujah. The President is saying, "Hey Fallujah, look at the size of my mandate." The paper's editorial added that the coalition forces could of course win, but at what cost? "A bloody assault on the town would destroy what little support the United States still enjoys in Iraq, it wrote, and would send out a catastrophic message that it is unconcerned about what damage it inflicts on the Iraqi population so long as it achieves its goals." That does not bode well for the elections, since the people will have to have confidence in those who are administering the poll.
The Financial Times Deutschland took a different view. The problem of Fallujah has been cooking for a long time, it wrote. From a strategic point of view, it's more than time for an intervention. The city has become a symbol and the United States has to show before the elections in January that it won't tolerate regions beyond the law. The opposition has responded with a series of attacks, which are not just supposed to draw attention away from Fallujah, but also target the very heart of the new Iraqi state, whose security forces are not yet entirely self-confident. The paper concluded: "This first escalation shows: if Fallujah is lost, the US has lost Iraq."