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Sarkozy seeks fresh start and better trade at Africa summit

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2010-05-31

Over 250 African and French business leaders rubbed shoulders with African heads-of-state in Nice on Monday, as the 25th France-Africa summit, which for the first time will focus on both trade and politics, got under way.

On Monday, over 250 business leaders from Africa and France joined 38 African heads-of-state in the French Riviera city of Nice for the 25th annual France-Africa summit. In a break with the past, this year's summit  will focus on trade between France and the continent, rather than solely on political ties.

The summit is viewed by many as an attempt by the Elysee Palace to boost its dwindling influence in the region in the face of stiff competition from China, India and other emerging economic superpowers. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner, and has invested billions over the past decade to tap into the continent’s raw materials to fuel its own fast-growing economy.

When he took office in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkzoy vowed to break with the past and end what he described as the paternalistic relationship between France and its former colonies, a relationship based on privileges and hand-outs popularly referred to as “Francafrique”.

France has been frequently criticized for ignoring human rights violations in its former African colonies and propping up autocratic leaders in its quest for business privileges in the resource-rich continent.

In recent months, Sarkozy has attempted to mend France’s tense relations with Rwanda following the 1994 genocide. During a landmark trip to Kigali in March, Sarkozy said France would do everything possible to ensure that "all those responsible for the genocide are found and punished." Diplomatic relations between France and Rwanda were restored last year, three years after Kigali severed ties with Paris.
Has France really turned over a new leaf in Africa?

But critics say that 50 years after several African nations gained independence from France, not much has changed in the country's relationship with its former colonies.
While Sarkozy impressed when Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first African head of state to be invited to the presidential palace after he took office, he disappointed many when his first visit to the continent was to Gabon: then-President Omar Bongo of Gabon was a central figure in the ‘old’ ‘Françafrique’ style of diplomacy.
The disappointment turned to outrage last year, when the French government appeared to support Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo, in the August 2009 polls, sparking criticism among Gabonese opposition figures and igniting street protests across Paris.
Sarkozy’s cozy relations with Paul Biya, whose 28-year rule in Cameroon has been criticised by international rights groups, has also raised eyebrows in Africa circles. Last year, when Sarkozy welcomed the controversial African leader by praising Cameroon for its moderation, demonstrators in Paris sported placards that read, "Biya murderer, Sarkozy accomplice."
At this year's summit however, Sarkozy aims to focus on business. To mark the start of the much-trumpeted new era in French-African relations, a charter is set to be signed at the end of the conference which will pledge greater cooperation in training, jobs and environmental issues.
And while the annual summit has traditionally focused on former French colonies, the only two heads of state to hold face-to-face talks with Sarkozy at the conference's sidelines are South Africa's Jacob Zuma and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, both leaders of former British colonies.

Date created : 2010-05-31


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