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President Sarkozy urges revamped trade ties at Africa-France Summit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday brought a number of new proposals to boost business ties with Africa during the 25th Africa-France Summit in Nice, France.

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“The fact is that France is attempting to find ways of counteracting or competing with China’s presence in Africa, and protecting its access to African markets,” says Achille Mbembe, an historian at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. Offering to help Africa get a greater voice on the UN Security Council and at the G-20 is nothing new, Mr. Mbembe says, adding, “It’s cheap diplomacy, a symbolic gesture that doesn’t cost much, but the symbolic returns are high.”

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Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, a socialist, is happy that Sarkozy seems to be taking an active role in renewing France's ties with Africa.

“Sarkozy, after promising to change everything, seems to have gotten back to more traditional ways," says Mr. Vedrine. "I am among those who think France must retain an African policy. There is a China policy, an Indian, and a Qatari policy unfolding. The US has its own policy. We must retain our ties with Africa and build a European policy, along with the UK and Portugal. We must not give up our African policy, but reinvent it. To do so, we must work with the Africans. It remains to be done.”

Human rights activists skeptical

The pragmatic business-first approach that Sarkozy is taking worries some human rights activists, however.

In the past, France refrained from criticizing even its most dictatorial friends in Africa, in a show of French-African solidarity. Today, France and its allies still remain silent about human rights abuses, but for business reasons.

"Unless African governments are willing to bring prosecutions for the worst human rights abuses, they will have a hard time achieving political stability and sustainable development," said Jon Elliott, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in a recent statement to the press. "Impunity leads to conflict, corruption, and lives stunted by fear and intimidation."

Perhaps to allay some of the concern voiced by rights groups, a second focus of the conference is environmental, with twelve French companies, including Areva, the French nuclear giant, oil giant Total, and Veolia, the largest water supply company in the world, announcing a joint venture called Africasol to create a solar energy project in the Sub-Saharan desert.