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France pushes economic ties with Africa

NICE, May 31 – France on Monday bids to shore up its dwindling clout in Africa at a summit designed to launch a renewal of Franco-African ties and enlist big business in development.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will play host to 38 African leaders in the Riviera city of Nice, hoping to put his stamp on a gathering that has been a fixture of French diplomacy in Africa for nearly three decades.

The 25th Africa-France summit is Sarkozy\’s first since taking office in 2007 and reflects France\’s shift away from its traditional west African allies toward engagement with the continent as a whole.

Among the heavy hitters at the high-level talks will be South Africa\’s President Jacob Zuma, who travelled to Nice just weeks before the opening of the World Cup, and Nigeria\’s Goodluck Jonathan, sworn in this month.

In a first, 80 French business leaders including top bosses at oil giant Total and nuclear behemoth Areva are taking part in summit talks along with 150 heads of African companies.

The push on the economic front comes as France has taken a back seat to China, Africa\’s biggest trade partner, which has injected billions over the past decade to tap into raw materials needed to fuel its hungry economy.

"The competition is coming from China and India," Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper at the weekend.

"Their products are cheap, good quality and it\’s much easier to sign contracts with them."

French business leaders are expected to unveil plans for a new solar power project in Africa, a social responsibility charter and private equity funds for African firms.

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Underscoring France\’s desire to engage with African powers, Sarkozy will have a working lunch with Zuma on Monday before the summit opening and also meet separately with Jonathan, who has been in office for less than a month.

The French president has done away with the traditional dinner of leaders from francophone west Africa and whittled down the three-day summit into a 24-hour affair.

Giving Africa a strong voice in world governance will be a key topic on the summit agenda as France prepares to take the helm of the Group of Eight and Group of 20 club of rich economies next year.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia\’s Meles Zenawi chairs a round-table discussion on climate and development with a view to cementing a united Africa stance ahead of a key meeting in Cancun, Mexico later this year.

French development minister Alain Joyandet has described the Nice gathering as "the summit of renewal, a sort of launch of a new era."

"Nice illustrates that change is underway," said Stephen Smith, author of "A Post-Colonial Journey: The New Franco-African World".

"The future belongs to lucrative trade with all African countries and no longer to aid for a few historical friends," he said.

Rights group Survie has criticised the summit for turning a blind eye to corruption, human rights and the pillaging of resources that continue to plague Africa.

Two African leaders failed to make the guest list for Nice: Sudan\’s President Omar al-Beshir, who is wanted by an international court for war crimes in Darfur, and Zimbabwe\’s Robert Mugabe, still under an EU travel ban.

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The summit venue was changed from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to Nice to spare Egypt the embarrassment of having to leave a leader of Sudan, a neighbouring state, out in the cold.

Most of France\’s allies in west Africa are turning up, with the exception of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who is on poor terms with Paris over his country\’s ongoing political crisis.

There was a sign of a warming of ties between France and Algeria when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally agreed to attend the Nice summit.

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