ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – For more than 100 years, French families have made their homes in this tropical country, rich in coffee and cocoa. Its main city, with its towering skyscrapers, crisp croissants and fine wines, became known as the Paris of West Africa (search).
Now an unparalleled and deadly showdown between France (search) and its former prize colony has sent the majority of them fleeing wild looting and burning. For many on both sides of the crisis, it was a turning point that threatens to reshape France's cozy relationship with its former African empire.
"It is the end of the decolonization process," said one French longtime resident, an auto parts dealer who asked not to be named.
Until now, Ivory Coast (search) has maintained strong political, economic, military and cultural ties with its ex-colonial master, prompting critics to say West Africa's economic hub never fully established independence at the end of French rule in 1960.
When President Laurent Gbagbo came to power in 2000, French officials were at his side, consulting Paris by cell phone, as Gbagbo summoned his supporters into the streets to overthrow a military junta.
Rising resentments, and an unexplained airstrike earlier this month, blew that esprit de corps to bits. Ivorian warplanes struck a French peacekeeping base Nov. 6, killing nine French soldiers and an American aid worker, during bombing runs in the rebel-held north.
In reply, France wiped out the country's fledgling air force and took control of the international airport. French armored vehicles rolled through the streets, and French helicopters circled above, infuriating Gbagbo's fiercely nationalist supporters to whom it looked like an occupation army.
"Because they colonized us, they think they are our gods now," said Joseph Yapi, one of scores of government supporters camped out in front of Gbagbo's residence carrying a sign warning French President Jacques Chirac: "Don't drive us to the slaughterhouse."
Anti-foreigner crowds rampaged across the government-held south, sending more than 8,000 of the country's 14,000 French residents fleeing in one of the largest evacuations of Westerners in post-independence Africa.
Gbagbo's government says more than 60 of its supporters were killed and 1,300 injured when the French fired at demonstrators in Abidjan, the commercial capital. A number of European women were raped, according to France.
Even as leaders on both sides moved to calm the crisis, pro-Gbagbo hard-liners demanded that French forces leave the country.
"We are no longer in the colonial era. They can't come kill innocent people with impunity," Mamadou Koulibaly, president of the national assembly, told Associated Press Television News.
Chirac sounded a conciliatory note at a summit of francophone heads of state last week, calling Ivory Coast a "friend" and saying French troops weren't in the country to impose peace, but to help Ivorians end their conflict.
But privately, French officials say Gbagbo's actions could see France withdrawing its entire force from Ivory Coast after elections promised for next year and scaling back its political and economic commitments here.
It is a trend already evident for more than a decade in other parts of France's one-time empire.
Gone are the days when friendly dictators could count on French financial largesse to prop up their corrupt regimes and French military muscle to protect them against rivals. Since the mid-1990s, France has been reducing its military presence across Africa and has linked its aid to political and economic reforms.
But Ivory Coast has always been something of an exception. Even under colonialism, it was the only country in West Africa with a sizable population of European settlers.
Its founding president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was the first African to serve as a minister in a European government. Throughout his 33 years in power, he maintained close ties with France. French teachers, advisers and technicians poured into the country, securing most of the top managerial positions.
Their expertise helped build Ivory Coast into the world's largest cocoa producer with the region's most developed infrastructure. But their presence also caused resentment among some Ivorians, who saw them as profiting from their country's wealth.
When the civil war started two years ago, France still had some 20,000 nationals living in Ivory Coast and some 1,000 troops stationed there to protect them. French investors dominated the economy.
Unlike elsewhere, France refused to stand by as rebel forces seized the north and pressed toward Abidjan. It sent in reinforcements and helped broker a cease-fire.
When Gbagbo's military and supporters turned, violently, against France this month, his fellow African leaders refused to rally to his side.
The African Union backed a U.N. arms embargo against Ivory Coast. Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade even proposed the creation of a transitional, nonparty "government of technocrats" to take over from Gbagbo.
France now has more than 5,000 troops in Ivory Coast, many of them deployed in a buffer zone keeping the two warring sides apart.
How long they will stay — and what their role will be — remains murky.
"The more French citizens pull out, the more the economy collapses, the less French stakes you have there and the more politically embarrassing it becomes for them at home," said Stephen Morrison, an African affairs specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But I don't think they are going to cut and run."
France retains economic interests here and in other countries. But French officials already appear to be pulling back from the political fray. This time, they insist, the solution must be an African one.
Meanwhile, the French settlers who made their lives here are being replaced by a new generation of expatriates. They arrive on company contracts, stay a few years, and move on.
"I am part of a dying race," said the French auto-parts dealer, saying goodbye to his fleeing French friends, and staying.