Africa-France summit gives business top billing

Piracy, terrorism and climate change get prime billing but business is the linchpin at a summit between France and African leaders that begins on Monday.

Not on the agenda but a clear subtext is President Nicolas Sarkozy’s desire to assure broader influence and greater economic weight for France in Africa — seen as a new frontier for profit-making a half-century after France lost 14 African colonies
to independence.

Many of those countries are now looking to China for trade and investment.

The dictatorships, conflicts, corruption and poverty that have plagued African nations for decades and define their image in the West are reduced to sideline events at the two-day summit, which includes the heads of state or government from 38 countries in Africa.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hosted African counterparts for a pre-summit meeting Sunday in the Riviera city of Nice under heavy security. Helicopters patrolled the venue while police blocked off streets and hotels where the leaders are staying.

Sarkozy is “renovating” the Africa-France summit, in its 25th year, by also inviting about 230 business leaders from Africa and France to the Riviera city of Nice. The move has angered aid groups, who fear the summit will take a purely financial view of development.

France’s number two government minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, recently called Africa “our El Dorado” — a legendary city of gold.

The line between casting off France’s colonial-era ties and profiting from them is delicate. France plans to invite African troops to take part in its grandiose Bastille Day military parade on July 14 to recognise the role troops from French colonies played in fighting for France during both the first and second World Wars.

Yet Sarkozy insists there’s no room at the summit for nostalgia.

“Fifty years after independence and in a context of
globalisation, no one, neither Africans nor French, would understand” profit grounded in the colonial legacy, Sarkozy told the weekly Les Afriques. “The reality is that between France and Africa today there are numerous common interests and objective reasons to freely rebuild a close relationship.”

Another reality is the growing presence in Africa of China, India, Brazil and even Iran, along with allies like the United States. 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 that imposed its culture, injected massive aid and profited economically, often through networks that fed corrupt regimes.

That special French relationship — which endured after independence and is known as “Francafrique” — “is not over at all, not at all”, said Africa specialist Alain Antil of the French Institute for International Relations.

But “its networks are certainly less powerful” than in the past, he said, and France is keen to evolve into a primary partner on other, non-French-speaking parts of the continent.

An Elysee Palace official said Sarkozy is more interested in bilateral talks with leaders of countries not in the circle of former colonies. Among those leaders attending is South African President Jacob Zuma.

“There is still a complex in France, a bit of envy” toward the British Commonwealth, which developed economic ties within its sphere of influence rather than accenting cultural ties as France did, Antil said.

Yet aid groups worry about using free enterprise as a means of development.

“We have real concerns because the word ‘corruption’ doesn’t appear in [summit] documents, the word ‘transparency’ doesn’t appear,” said Brice Mackosso of the Brazzaville-based association
Publish What You Pay, which acts like a watchdog for shady corporate practices.

France invited union representatives in a bid to open the forum and wants business leaders at the summit to develop a charter of good behaviour in Africa.

Only one African country was not 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. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, facing EU sanctions travel restrictions, also was not invited.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak co-presides with Sarkozy over the Nice summit. The 2013 edition of the summit is to be held in Egypt. – Sapa-AP

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