Africa-France summit guest list causes headaches

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An Africa-France summit opens in Nice on Monday after organisers drew up a guest list that leaves some disgraced leaders out in the cold while still inviting a few junta chiefs to the party.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will be playing host to 38 African leaders in the Riviera city for a 24-hour gathering that is being billed as a "summit of renewal" to revamp France's ties on the continent.

The summit had been initially scheduled to take place in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, but the first hurdle came over inviting Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, charged by an international court with war crimes in Darfur.

Fearing embarrassment if a man subject to an international arrest warrant showed up, France stepped in and moved the summit to Nice, sparing Egypt from having to snub a neighbour and allowing Beshir to send a representative.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is also persona non grata. Still under an European Union travel ban imposed on the Harare leadership for rights violations after contested election of 2002, he was not invited and will not be represented.

Niger's president Mamadou Tandja was ousted in a military coup in February and despite Niger's being a key ally, France had crossed the uranium-producer and top partner for French nuclear giant Areva off the guest list.

That decision was reversed earlier this month after General Salou Djibo promised to restore civilian rule within 12 months and the junta leader has been invited to the summit.

The interim leader of the military junta that seized power in a 2008 coup in Guinea, General Sekouba Konate, is joining the fete after promising elections next month -- the first free ballot since independence from France in 1958.

Sekouba Konate travelled to France in early April after announcing elections for June 27 following the stadium massacre of 156 people in Conakry, one of the bloodiest in Africa last year.

Madagascar's Andry Rajoelina, who grabbed power in an army-backed coup in March 2009, has not been so lucky.

Talks to broker a political solution to the crisis in the Indian Ocean state have failed and French officials say he is not welcome in Nice.

In all 51 of the 53 countries in Africa will be represented in some form, with only Madagascar and Zimbabwe left out in the cold.

"There are certain people who are radioactive," said Reed Brody, a director in Brussels for the US-based Human Rights Watch group.

"Beshir and Mugabe are among them. They cannot be invited or received by European leaders."

Africa-France summits have been an important fixture of French diplomacy on the continent for decades, but Sarkozy wants to put his mark on the gathering, with a group photo that reflects his drive for renewed ties.

French development minister Alain Joyandet defended the guest list this week, saying Paris had bowed to African Union rules that say junta leaders can attend once they have taken steps to hand back power to elected officials.

"When these principles are respected there is no problem in inviting those who are leading a country during a transition," said Joyandet.

Many of Africa's heavy hitters will be in Nice: South Africa's Jacob Zuma, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and Rwanda's Paul Kagame.

All of France's allies in west Africa are expected to turn up, with the exception of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who is on poor terms with Paris over his country's ongoing political crisis.

He has boycotted consecutive summits since 2002.

Other notable no-shows are Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Africa's biggest oil producer.

© 2010 AFP

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