DAKAR, Senegal — The news reports streaming out of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's once shining metropolis, seem like a throwback to a bygone era: white men and women cowering in their homes, black men and women rampaging through the streets, European soldiers swooping down in helicopters and plucking Europeans to safety.
It could have been Congo, circa 1964, when Belgian paratroopers swooped down on the Congo River town of Stanleyville, now Kisangani, to evacuate terrified Europeans during a nationalist rebellion.
There has never been any Algeria-like struggle against French colonialism in Ivory Coast, nothing even approaching the nationalist movements in Congo to shake off Belgian rule. In any case, the so-called Young Patriots who have led the violent demonstrations against the French in Abidjan this week were, for the most part, born well after independence from France was achieved more than 40 years ago.
Yet the weight of history is being used as a potent weapon to rally popular sentiment for the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo, and against the former colonial ruler, which government supporters accuse of supporting Mr. Gbagbo's rebel foes. "Thank you for having brought failure to Jacques Chirac's coup d'état," the fiery pro-government leader, Charles Blé Goudé, announced on state television, according to Reuters, in a message directed at the pro-Gbagbo mobs that surrounded the president's house on Monday.
But the hostility toward the French obscures a greater issue: the real identity politics that is driving the conflict in Ivory Coast. That is a contest that pits African against African, ethnic groups from the north against ethnic groups from the south, landowners against migrant workers who want to be landowners.
Like so many conflicts in West Africa, the one in Ivory Coast is in large part a contest for the country's most valuable asset: the land on which cocoa is grown. Making it particularly entrenched are issues that were never fully resolved at independence: Who is a citizen of Ivory Coast, who can rule, who can own land?
Those were the underlying issues when an 18-month cease-fire between northern rebels and the government in the south was quashed last Thursday after Mr. Gbagbo's military began bombing rebel-held towns. Matters took a sharp turn for the worse on Saturday when Ivoirian planes bombed a French base near the northern town of Bouake, killing nine soldiers and an American civilian. France retaliated by destroying much of the country's military air assets.
The attack on the French base swiftly altered the story line. French troops that had been in the country to monitor a buffer zone between government- and rebel-held territories now became ensnared in the war itself. French officials called the air raids on the French base deliberate.
On Tuesday, with government supporters clashing with French troops on the streets of Abidjan, the Ivory Coast Army spokesman, Jules Yao Yao, said four Ivoirians had been shot and killed by French forces in front of the Hôtel Ivoire, the luxury high-rise that once embodied the aspirations of modern, independent Ivory Coast. One of the dead had his head blown off, Reuters reported. Protesters carried the body of a young man with a bullet in his neck to the gates of Mr. Gbagbo's home, the news agency said. "This is France, this is France!" they cried.
All this week, pro-government forces have taken aim at French citizens, gutting homes and businesses and sending hundreds of them and other expatriates mistaken for being French into the sanctuary of the French military base and the United Nations compound in Abidjan. United Nations officials on the ground raised the alarm about "hate messages" that fanned anti-French feeling on state-run radio. The United Nations secretary general on Tuesday called for "the cessation of all 'hate media.' "
It did not matter that French officials took pains to point out that their military presence in Ivory Coast was purely to restore the rule of law and not to depose a sitting president. "France has absolutely no intention of destabilizing Ivory Coast and its institutions or of taking sides," the French foreign minister, Michel Barnier, said Sunday. "Its paramount concern is to preserve constitutional legality. It has no hidden intention."
The French position received sharp backing from Gen. Charles F. Wald, deputy commander of the United States European Command, who said Tuesday that President Gbagbo had "made an exceptionally ignorant and stupid judgmental mistake by actually having these guys bomb people,'' adding, "We strongly believe that the French took the exact right action."
The upheaval of recent days is the latest chapter in a crisis that started with a failed coup attempt by disgruntled soldiers in September 2002. That quickly blossomed into a full-scale rebellion led by northerners, who complained of disenfranchisement and discrimination at the hands of the southern ruling elite.
Their ire was fed by a nativist movement led by the southern elites, called "Ivoirité," literally Ivoirianness, which imposed new restrictions on who could own land, vote and run for office. Emotions were further heightened when a popular northern opposition politician, Alassane D. Ouattara, was disqualified from the presidential race. He was deemed not to be a purebred Ivoirian.
Citizenship became a matter of bloodlines, defined by the southerners. It was a radical turnaround from the open-door policy of the country's iron-fisted founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who allowed migrants from neighboring countries to work in and ultimately own vast swaths of land in Ivory Coast, helping turn it into the world's top cocoa producer.
Since that time, the country has been divided between the government-held south and the rebel-held north. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, flew to Abidjan on Tuesday in an effort to defuse the latest crisis on behalf of the African Union. But the underlying issues that led to the conflict, chiefly property rights and nationality requirements, have yet to be dealt with.
So has France's role in the future of Ivory Coast. An editorial on Tuesday in Le Figaro, a right-of-center French newspaper, wondered, "Do we want to reoccupy our former colony to impose democracy, the rule of law and civil national concord, in light of what the U.S. has promised to accomplish in Iraq? "Do we want to consolidate a cease-fire, in light of what the U.N. has been doing in Cyprus for the past 30 years? Or, more modestly, do we want to content ourselves with protecting what is left of 'French interests' in Félix Houphouët-Boigny 's home country? No one knows."www.nytimes.com/2004/11/10/international/africa/10letter.html?oref=login&pagewanE-mail this article