At the opening of the 25th France-Africa Summit in Nice, France on Monday, French President Nicholas Sarkozy unveiled plans to improve France’s often troubled but powerful relationship with its many former French colonies.
Mr. Sarkozy reiterated France’s longtime support for giving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to an African state, and also for an African country or country's to join the Group of 20, the club of the world’s most powerful economic nations.
“Africa is our future … the African continent is asserting itself more and more as a major player in international life," said Sarkozy. "We cannot govern a 21-century world with a 20-century institution.”
Since taking power in May 2007, Sarkozy has declared a “rupture” with past French policy, which had long preserved a paternalistic role for France towards the dozens of French-speaking former colonies in Africa. Today, Sarkozy says it is in France’s interests to change that relationship into one of equal partners.
"I am deeply convinced that it is no longer possible to discuss major world issues without the presence of Africa," Sarkozy said in an opening speech at the summit.
Focus on business
The meeting – attended for the first time by some 230 French and African business groups – is focused on strengthening mutual business interests.
Fifty years ago, 40 percent of French trade was with Africa. Today the figure is closer to 2 percent.
At a time when Chinese and Indian investment is flooding into Africa, eager to buy up and develop Africa’s natural resources, France’s attempt to hold onto its influence is understandable.
French, American, and British companies still hold the lion’s share of African mineral contracts, but Chinese investment is fast catching up, developing new oilfields in Sudan and Angola, and revitalizing old copper mines in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even buying up farmland across the continent to help meet the food needs of its growing population.
To simply hold onto their place, old powers like France have to get creative, and woo African leaders.
“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.”
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.