Sarkozy opens up to Africa at Nice summit

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President Nicolas Sarkozy will host his first Africa summit next week, joined by some 40 leaders in the Riviera city of Nice as France seeks to salvage its dwindling clout on the continent.

Among Africa's heavy hitters at the two-day affair that kicks off on Monday will be South Africa's Jacob Zuma, Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi.

Three years after taking office on a pledge to shake up France's ties with Africa, Sarkozy hopes to put his stamp on a summit that has been a fixture of French diplomacy in Africa for nearly three decades.

To this end, France has invited about 80 French business leaders including the chief executives of oil giant Total and nuclear behemoth Areva to take part along with 150 African counterparts.

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.

"Nice illustrates that change is underway," said Stephen Smith, author of "A Post-Colonial Journey: The New Franco-African World", released in March.

"The future belongs to lucrative trade with all African countries and no longer to aid for a few historical friends," he said.

France now has only three permanent military bases in Africa, down from five under former leader Jacques Chirac, known as "Chirac the African" for the many personal friendships he developed with west African leaders.

The French troops are a holdover from the Cold War when France was known as the "gendarme of Africa" as the only western country to have pre-positioned forces on the continent.

The 25th Africa-France summit is Sarkozy's first since taking office in 2007 and the consensus among observers is that his promises to end France's murky ties with Africa, known as the "FrancAfrique" network, have not materialised.

All of France's allies in west Africa are expected to turn up at Nice, 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.

Two African leaders failed to make the guest list for Nice: Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir, who is wanted by an international court for war crimes in Darfur, and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, still under EU sanctions.

The summit venue was changed from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to Nice to spare Egypt the embarrassment of having to leave a leader of Sudan, a neighbouring state, out in the cold.

After a military coup in February ousted Niger's president Mamadou Tandja, a key ally, France had crossed the uranium-producing state and one of Areva's top partners off the guest list.

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

Union leaders, civil society activists along with UN agencies and the World Bank will also have a voice at the summit co-chaired by 82-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is recovering from gall bladder surgery.

Elysee officials however point to the attendance of the business leaders as an innovation that will yield "deliverables" -- concrete measures in favour of African development.

Announcements are expected on a new solar power project, a social responsibility charter for French businesses and the creation of private equity funds for African firms.

© 2010 AFP

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