THIS week's Franco-African summit takes place as strong winds buffet France's relationship with a continent it has for decades considered a kind of diplomatic backyard. French President Fran,cois Mitterrand, who Tuesday night was to welcome representatives of more than 30 African nations to the French Atlantic city of La Baule, spoke approvingly earlier this month during a visit to Indian Ocean nations of ``the wind from Europe that is beginning to blow in Africa.''
Yet some analysts here say Mr. Mitterrand's reference to events in Eastern Europe was spoken with the same reserve that typified France's response last year to prospects for German reunification. The rise of democratic aspirations, they note, is calling into question France's policy of overlooking high-level curruption and human rights abuses in Africa in favor of the continent's status quo.
Historically, potentially destabilizing political and economic reforms have not been encouraged by the openly paternalistic French African policy that took root under Charles de Gaulle in 1960 during decolonization.
But with much of Africa falling deeper into economic torpor and experiencing growing political agitation, things may be changing. Expectations that this summit will differ from past sessions was illustrated by Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who two years ago shook summit-goers in Casablanca, Morocco, by loudly proclaiming, ``We talk, talk, talk, and then nothing.'' Mr. Bongo, whose country was recently rocked by unrest, says this year's meeting will be ``the summit of truth.''
Africa's economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past decade. Although the population of sub-Saharan Africa has more than doubled since 1965, per capita gross national product (GNP) since 1980 has plummeted to about $330. As prices for commodities like cocoa have dropped, proceeds from exports have been progressively eaten up just to service the region's external debt; the debt for most countries now equals or exceeds annual GNP.
French government officials indicate that France, which holds 75 percent of the debt of French-African nations, will probably announce at the summit new measures to relieve the public debt of four countries: Ivory Coast, Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo.
France continues to call itself Africa's ``advocate.'' Mitterrand pushed unsuccessfully at last July's G-7 summit of the world's seven wealthiest industrial nations in Paris for a North-South summit, and promises he will offer similar proposals when the nations meet again next month in Houston.
The most important accomplishment of this week's summit may be to reinforce France's position with its wealthier allies on African issues, some Africans believe.
``We expect this summit to put new emphasis on Mitterrand and France as our spokesmen in other international organizations they belong to,'' says a Senegalese official here.
New French proposals for aiding Africa are expected to be presented both at the European Community's summit in Dublin next week and in Houston, he said.
While the French government finds itself publicly required to advocate the democratic reforms more Africans are seeking, it insists at the same time that Western judgments of insufficient democratic measures cannot be used to slow needed international economic aid.
At a Monday press briefing on the summit, French presidential spokesman Hubert Vedrine criticized the ``Pharisaism of wealthy nations that are using the poor countries' lack of democracy as an excuse not to help them.''
Mr. Vedrine added, ``France can give an opinion and encouragement, but it cannot mandate what these countries can or can't do.''
Given the records of many now-troubled African regimes, however, that point of view may not enjoy wide support among France's Western allies.