, ABIDJAN, July 17 – French President Francois Hollande on Thursday began a visit to Ivory Coast to boost economic ties with a nation emerging from a long conflict that divided it and set back production.
France is the main trading partner of its former colony, the world’s leading cocoa producer and long the economic hub of the west African region. Ivory Coast still hosts hundreds of French companies.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara met Hollande at the airport of the commercial capital Abidjan. Part of the city was bedecked with flags of the two countries and giant portraits of both leaders, to mark Hollande’s first visit.
Ouattara has already established good relations with the French head of state during four trips to Paris since Hollande was elected two years ago.
The Ivorian leader, long in opposition, came to power after a disputed election in 2010 led to a climax of political bloodshed when his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down and was ousted by force.
After seeing Ouattara, Hollande went on to hold talks with about 40 French barons of industry who also travelled to Abidjan, including the chairman of the Bouygues group, Martin Bouygues, and senior management representatives from Alstom and Suez-Environnement.
Before having official talks with Ouattara, Hollande was set to visit Abidjan’s lagoon, where Bouygues has undertaken the building of a third bridge, presented as a key project by the Ivorian government.
– Business and justice –
Ivorian authorities report that 800 French firms are active in the country, of which 160 represent large groups, working in sectors ranging from transport and construction to banking.
These companies employ almost 35,000 people and their combined annual turnover accounts for about 30 percent of Ivory Coast’s gross domestic product, according to French statistics.
In the afternoon, Hollande and Ouattara are due to address the closing session of an economic forum on “the sustainable city”.
Justice and human rights are also on the agenda. Hollande is scheduled to meet officials of the Ivorian Patriotic Front (FPI), the party founded by Gbagbo, who is now detained by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on four counts of crimes against humanity.
While a reconciliation process was launched after the post-electoral conflict that claimed more than 3,000 lives in the wake of Gbagbo’s turbulent rule and a divisive rebellion, legal proceedings are still under way.
France plans to sign a cooperation agreement covering the judiciary, worth some 25 million euros, with the aim of helping Ivorian courts to work more efficiently in tackling outstanding cases.
On Friday and Saturday, Hollande will fly on to Niger and Chad for talks dominated by security issues, days after France announced a plan to deploy a new anti-terrorist force of 3,000 men in the Sahel, extending military action against armed Islamic extremists.
The French leader is accompanied by his ministers of defence and foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Laurent Fabius.