Sarkozy seeks fresh start and better trade at Africa summit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy greeted Rwanda's President Paul Kagame.

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.

NICE, France—Africa has the potential for exponential economic growth and must have a louder voice in world politics, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday, opening a summit with 38 African leaders.

Paris wants to use the gathering as a springboard for business deals and to bury bitter memories of colonial rule.

It is “completely abnormal” that no African country has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Mr. Sarkozy said, calling for reform of the body in an address to the Africa-France summit in the Riviera city of Nice.

“It is not possible to talk about the great questions of the world without the presence of Africa,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “Our destinies are indissolubly linked.” He said “Africa is our future” and will be a principle reservoir for world economic growth in the decades to come.

The 25th Africa-France summit coincides with the 50th anniversary of independence for 14 former French colonies. It marks a new era of ties—for Mr. Sarkozy a partnership of friends able to discuss commerce or stickier questions like human rights.

Breaking away from tradition, France has invited nearly 200 business leaders from France and Africa to this year’s summit.

The dictatorships, conflicts, corruption and poverty that have plagued African nations for decades and define their image in the West have been reduced to sideline events at the two-day summit.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stressed the need to change “African realities” through commerce and new infrastructure. He asked that the summit put the accent on developing African economies, including strengthening the role of the private sector.

“We want at all cost to end the marginal status of the African continent,” he said.

A harsh reality for nations like France is the growing presence in Africa of China, India, Brazil and Iran, and to a lesser degree the U.S. Many of those nations are moving full speed ahead to scoop up Africa’s natural resources, make trade and win contracts to build infrastructure.

In French-speaking countries, mainly in north and west Africa, France must live down its past as a colonial ruler. An Elysee Palace official said Mr. Sarkozy is more interested in bilateral talks with leaders of countries not in the circle of former colonies.

Only one African country wasn’t invited to the summit—Madagascar, the Indian Ocean island where a 2009 coup toppled an elected president.

Notable absent leaders include Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, sought by the International Criminal Court for allegedly masterminding atrocities in Darfur. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, facing EU sanctions travel restrictions, also wasn’t invited.

This happens in the context of China’s increase and economic-political expansion in Africa. Trade between Africa and China has increased 10 fold since 2000.

France is seeking to renew its ties with Africa at the two-day gathering that will touch on global governance and Africa’s campaign for more of say at the United Nations Security Council, the UN’s top decision-making body. France wants to increase the number of African states represented and also have two permanent African nations on the UN security counsel, but not let them have no veto power. Of course the lack of veto power was not welcomed by African delegates.

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.

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