France looks to recast Africa role at summit
France will seek to recast its role in Africa at a summit starting Friday, hoping to shed its image as the continent's policeman even as it prepares to send troops for the second time this year.
President Francois Hollande will host some 40 African leaders in Paris for the ambitious two-day summit, as he looks to secure his nation's influence in the face of the growing clout of China and other developing economies.
Once master of expanses of northern, central and western Africa, France has played a crucial role in its post-colonial history, intervening militarily more than 20 times since the early 1960s.
French boots are about to hit the ground again, with plans for more than 1,000 soldiers to be deployed to help restore order in the lawless Central African Republic (CAR).
It will be France's second military operation in Africa this year, after Hollande sent more than 4,000 troops to oust Islamist rebels in control of northern Mali in January.
But officials insist his message at the summit will be that Africa needs to begin looking after itself.
"Africa needs to start taking responsibility for its own security," a French diplomatic source told AFP ahead of the summit.
The leaders will on Friday hold talks on cross-continent security issues like terrorism, piracy and trafficking, including efforts to set up an African Union-run reaction force to deal with unrest.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon and EU leaders are also to take part and a separate mini-summit on the CAR crisis will be held on Saturday.
Hollande has vowed to break with France's old way of looking at Africa -- a system dubbed "Francafrique" that saw Paris use its economic influence and military muscle to prop up dictators or back up rebellions in its own interests.
Officials say the CAR intervention highlights Hollande's different approach, as France is seeking UN Security Council backing for the mission and operating in support of an African mission already on the ground.
Still, experts say France is hardly retreating from its longstanding military role in Africa.
Of the about 7,500 French soldiers deployed overseas as of December 1, more than 5,300 were in the continent, at a string of bases across western and central Africa, according to defence ministry figures.
In a report in May, London-based Chatham House quoted official sources saying France's permanent military presence in Africa costs it upwards of 400 million euros ($540 million) per year and that the budget was expected to rise.
"France wields a level of influence in sub-Saharan Africa that it cannot command anywhere else in the world," the report said.
"In crisis situations, it is still seen as a key source of diplomatic, military or even financial pressure."
A key government report on defence policy in April even highlighted a particular role for Africa in France's long-term defence and security strategy.
Analysts said that will make it hard for Hollande to push through a new approach.
"Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, every president from the left or the right... has spoken of breaking away and changing direction," Africa specialist Antoine Glaser said.
"In fact there is no 'new' policy. France's African policy has always been the one of the French military," he said.
China now Africa's largest trading partner
Even some African officials admit the continent will continue to need military help from abroad.
"Africans can make their own efforts, particularly in terms of equipment," an African diplomatic source said, "but we have enormous needs in terms of logistics and training."
On Saturday, the leaders at the summit will turn to economic questions, with France pushing a new partnership plan with Africa drafted by Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.
With China now Africa's largest trading partner and countries like India and Brazil scaling up their presence, France is anxious to tap into the continent's rapidly growing economies.
It already has a strong presence in Africa -- which accounts for three percent of French exports -- but its share of the African market has been falling for decades.
Hollande said ahead of the summit that the goal was to double trade with Africa, which he said would create 200,000 jobs if done within five years.
More than 500 African and French business leaders were to take part in trade talks on the sidelines of the summit, which was also to discuss endangered species and climate change.
© 2013 AFP