Sarkozy faces sceptics over bid to revamp Africa ties
President Nicolas Sarkozy hosts his first Africa summit this week hoping to convince leaders that France has put an end to its notoriously murky dealings with its ex-colonies and wants a fresh start.
Sarkozy will face many sceptics at the summit in the Riviera city of Nice from Monday, bringing together some forty leaders from Cairo to Cape Town.
Unlike his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who was known for his personal relationships with French-speaking west African leaders, Sarkozy has preferred to engage with the continent as a whole.
Over the past three years, he has cut down French military bases in Africa from five to three and reached beyond France's traditional sphere of influence in its former colonies, to South Africa, Rwanda and Angola.
Former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine said he had difficulty believing in Sarkozy's vision of changed ties with Africa.
"It was a good thing that he reviewed our defence accords. That had to be done," said Vedrine. "But Nicolas Sarkozy has not cleaned up our relationship with Africa."
On his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa after taking office in 2007, Sarkozy managed to offend African leaders and intellectuals with a speech widely seen as riddled with stereotypes and prejudices.
"The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history," Sarkozy said in the speech at Dakar university. He argued that Africans had missed out on "progress".
In marked contrast with Chirac, Sarkozy campaigned for election on a promise to shake up France's ties with Africa, vowing to chase away "the old demons of paternalism, clientelism and hand-outs."
To underscore that point, the first African leader invited to the Elysee palace was Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, although she was followed shortly after by Omar Bongo of Gabon, France's long-time ally.
The continued presence in Sarkozy's team of lawyer Robert Bourgi, known as one of the Elysee's top operators in shady parallel diplomacy, has reinforced the view that it's business-as-usual in Africa.
On the economic front, Sarkozy wants to counter claims of French pillaging of resources by developing "win-win" partnerships in Africa.
But the French rights group Survie International charges that Paris still defends its economic interests "at the expense of human rights and democracy" in places like Niger, a prime source of uranium for French nuclear giant Areva.
French development minister Alain Joyandet said the two-day gathering in Nice would be "the summit of renewal, a sort of launch of a new era."
French and Africa business leaders and civil society representatives will also take part in the event to show that the summit is no longer the cozy affair of previous decades.
"France has made a clear break with its old ways and now has ties with everybody in Africa," said an Elysee official.
The Nice summit coincides with the 50th anniversary of the independence of 14 former colonies that is being celebrated in several countries, but Sarkozy has not attended any of the events.
The Elysee has however invited the leaders of the 14 ex-colonies to Paris as the special guests of the July 14 national day celebrations, and their national armies are to take part in the traditional Bastille Day parade.
Sarkozy will host a summit of west African leaders on July 13 at which he will deliver a keynote address on the future of Africa-France relations.
© 2010 AFP