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France in bid to salvage waning ties to Africa

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More troubling to critics of France's role in Africa was France's support of Rwanda's former Hutu-dominated government in the early 1990s, even after evidence that government supporters – on radio, in newspapers, and in churches – were announcing publicly their preparations to wipe out the Tutsi minority in 1994. Even after the genocide began, many experts alleged that France still airlifted military supplies to the government that was behind the killing of Tutsis. More than 800,000 Tutsis were killed.

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This past fall, a French judge went so far as to issue international arrest warrants for nine close aides of President Paul Kagame, citing evidence that it was Kagame's Tutsi forces that shot down Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane in 1994.

Mr. Kagame is not among the attendants of the Cannes summit. In fact, Kagame cut diplomatic ties with France in November, and has since applied for membership in the Commonwealth, a group of Britain's former colonies.

African protesters, along with international aid organizations, led protests outside of the Cannes summit this week, and France's ties with illiberal African regimes has become a hot-button topic in the ongoing presidential race to replace President Jacques Chirac.

"By favoring personal friendships to the detriment of the general interest, the presidential practice has tarnished the image of our country, which is associated in African minds with the most questionable regimes on the continent," wrote French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, in an editorial for the Témoignage Chrétien, a Catholic weekly.

French diplomats argue that such criticism betrays the complexities of some of Africa's conflicts and paints an unfair picture of France's overall policy toward Africa.

"Now we are trying to build these summits around the idea of how Africa figures into the balance of the world," says a French diplomat in Africa, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The issues that pertain to most Africans are how you deal with mineral wealth of Africa, to make sure that it is not going into shady deals or funding wars, but instead make sure that a percentage of it gets back to the populations."

On a broader level, Africans may be finding more common ground with their former colonial masters, who at least appear to be voicing their own fears about more immediate concerns, such as America's increasing willingness to go it alone, and topple governments in the name of democracy.

"France is not innocent, both in terms of past colonial history and even in the present time, in places like Ivory Coast and Rwanda," says Peter Kagwanja, director of the democracy and governance programs at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. "But on balance, France seems to be striking a chord with the weaker nations of the world, which feel vulnerable to the democratic militarism, the export of democracy via the gun."

Africans are saying, 'We would like to associate with the demands ... for multilateralism, for a consensus between the weak nations and the strong,' says Mr. Kagwanja. "At this point in history, France is on the right side of the global opinion."