March 4, 2008 / 4:57 PM / 10 years ago

Gabon threatens France with tit-for-tat deportation

LIBREVILLE, March 4 (Reuters) - Gabon threatened to expel French citizens without proper residency papers on Tuesday after what it called the abusive deportation of two Gabonese students from France last month.

Oil-rich Gabon, one of France’s closest allies in Africa and a pillar of the “francafrique” network of business and political interests in Paris’ former colonies, said the repatriations violated a 2002 bilateral agreement.

“These deportations, which revolted many Gabonese convinced of the exceptional relations between France and Gabon, are distressing as they follow a series of others since 2006 in humiliating conditions,” said a Foreign Ministry statement.

“There are recurrent complaints of harassment and numerous refusals of visas, often abusive, in the French consulate of Libreville,” it said, adding that it would apply the principle of reciprocity.

The row erupted after France expelled Leguy Mbira, 32, to Libreville on Friday after completing his Masters degree in France. On Feb. 19, Raissa Mengue Ondo, 30, was also expelled from the southwestern French city of Toulouse.

The local authorities there refused to renew her tourist visa, citing her failure to complete her legal course on seven occasions since arriving in 2001.

Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest serving leader with more than 40 years in power, has long been openly pro-French but relations with Paris have cooled since French President Nicolas Sarkozy took office last year.

    Sarkozy made national identity a focus of his 2007 election campaign and vowed to crack down on illegal immigration. Many young Africans try to remain in Europe after completing their studies to search for work.

    In January, Gabon accused Sarkozy’s government of arrogantly spurning old allies by saying it wanted to dismantle and reshape their past close relationship.

    Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth largest oil exporter, with France’s Total (TOTF.PA) dominating production. (Reporting by Antoine Lawson; writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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