France revamps business ties with Africa

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France on Tuesday moved to shore up its businesses in Africa that have fallen far behind China's massive investment drive on the continent, at a summit hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The two-day gathering in the Riviera city of Nice saw France shift its focus away from its traditional west African allies and engage with the continent as a whole, reaching out to economic powerhouses South Africa and Nigeria.

In a first, 80 French business leaders including top bosses at oil giant Total and nuclear behemoth Areva took part in summit talks along with 150 heads of African companies.

Total joined Areva, construction giant Bouygues and environment leader Veolia in launching a solar power project for southern Africa to generate badly-needed electricity with state-of-the-art French technology.

"We want to share technology, in particular on the key issue of solar power and renewable energy," Sarkozy said at the end of the two-day summit.

"France has technology and we can put it to good use for Africa, instead of having aid budgets that never fulfil their promise," he said.

French business leaders also released a new charter of social responsibility to encourage ethical conduct on the continent and said they would seek to enlist broad support for the document.

The push on the economic front comes as France has taken a back seat to China, Africa's biggest trade partner, which has injected billions over the past decade to tap into raw materials needed to fuel its hungry economy.

No figures were released on new French investments but Sarkozy made clear that France was back in force on the trade and business front.

"France and Africa are overflowing with projects," he said.

Rights groups had criticised the move to invite business chiefs to the summit, arguing that the rule of law must be strengthened in Africa, in particular to encourage better labour practices.

The 25th Africa-France summit was Sarkozy's first since taking office in 2007 and signalled France's desire to tap into Africa's economic growth.

Private sector investment in Africa has shot up from some 17 billion dollars in 2005 to 88 billion dollars in 2008, said Africa expert Karim Dahou of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

"Aid can be useful if it is used in conjunction with other resources but aid alone will not develop Africa. The private sector has a major role to play," said Dahou.

Declaring that "Africa is our future," Sarkozy has backed a permanent seat for Africa at the United Nations Security Council among other changes needed to give the continent a greater say in global affairs.

Talks on Tuesday also touched on climate change, with Africa and France calling on developing countries to make good on their promises of 30 billion dollars in aid, made at the Copenhagen summit.

Part of the funds are earmarked for battling deforestation in the Congo basin, home to the world's second largest rainforest after the Amazon of Brazil.

Africa is "not the cause nor the victim of climate change," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Africa's negotiator on climate change, said, adding that he had yet to see the funds promised at Copenhagen.

While business ties topped the agenda at the Nice summit, Sarkozy made clear France would support Africa in its struggle against piracy, terrorism and drug trafficking.

"There are crises on the continent," Sarkozy said, and Africa "cannot cope on its own."

© 2010 AFP

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