Paris — When French President Franois Mitterrand welcomed 17 African heads of state and representatives from 19 other African countries to Paris last week for the annual Franco-African summit, attention was focused on the one mercurial African leader who wasn't present -- Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. At the time, the Libyan leader was verbally attacking France in Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou with the rallying cry, ``Africa must belong to the Africans.''
Colonel Qaddafi's diplomatic offensive illustrated in dramatic fashion the crucial, if sometimes controversial, French presence in Africa. As the extraordinary turnout for the summit showed, Paris plays a much greater role in Africa than the other former colonial powers or than either superpower, and the assembled African leaders visibly looked for reassurance from the French.
President Mitterrand tried to calm them. He warned the Libyan leader to ``stay within his own frontiers and not to provoke useless and dangerous troubles within the African bloc.''
The specific point of contention is Chad. Sixteen months ago, France signed a pact with Libya for a simultaneous troop withdrawal. Yet Libyan forces continue to occupy the north, and Chad's President, Hissein Habr'e, recently charged that the troops have been reinforced in preperation for a new offensive against the south.
French officials say that France will not try to drive the Libyans from the north, but that it will respond decisively to any move southward. At the same time, Mitterrand says he is confident he can negotiate with the Libyan leader, and at the summit he tempered warnings to Qaddafi with overtures.
Mitterrand's willingness to act as regional superpower underlines how little he has changed French policy toward Africa. When it was the opposition, his Socialist Party criticized a string of right-wing governments for propping up corrupt regimes. But once in power, he decided that French interests in Africa required strong relations with as many countries as possible.
This has led to some criticism, both inside and outside the government. For instance, author Rene Dumont says, ``no one in France talks anymore about human rights in Africa.''
In defense of the government Christian Nucci, minister for cooperation, told the Monitor in an interview earlier this year that France could not ``abandon Africa.'' He said the Africans themselves asked for French protection from Libya, and that the French responded because they ``feel responsible'' for the area.
The French role in the region is part commercial partner, part military protector. The French gradually have expanded their influence into the former British, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies, too. Last year, France overtook Britain as Nigeria's largest trading partner. This helps explain why many representatives from non-French-speaking countries attended the summit.
France's military role in Africa is perhaps even greater than its commerical one. About 8,000 French troops are stationed in Africa, and France has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use them.
``The French play gendarmes for Western interests,'' says one United States diplomat. He adds, ``It is no secret that this pleases us.''
But French policies in Africa do not always suit US desires. The US would have liked the French to stay in Chad as long as Libyans remained in the north.
Also, Mitterrand disagrees with the US over the best policy to pursue for African development, opposing the Reagan adminsitration's emphasis on private enterprise. He believes more direct aid from developed countries is needed. At the summit, he announced his support for the idea of an international conference on African economics to help solve the question of African debt.
This move illustrates one part of a larger change in French aid policies toward Africa, according to author Dumont. He says that in the past, the French governments favored large, showy projects. Despite a recession at home, the French have increased their total aid package over the past four years -- and focused more of their support on smaller projects designed to help farmers.