Paris – At least 40 African leaders gather in Paris this
week for a French-led summit on improving security on the unstable continent
following France's military mission in Mali and a new one in the Central
The biggest international summit by France's Socialist
President Francois Hollande since he took power is aimed at helping Africa
tackle its security problems on its own with less and less Western backing from
former colonial masters.
It comes against the backdrop of French plans to send troops
to the Central African Republic and during a time when Paris, which has
thousands of troops garrisoned in Africa, is being dragged into action while it
is trying to reshape its relations with the continent.
The two-day summit starting Friday will be dominated by the
latest unrest in the Central African Republic (CAR), where clashes between
armed Muslim and Christian groups have raised fears of sectarian massacres.
France has called a mini-summit on the CAR crisis on
Saturday after the Africa conference and UN chief Ban Ki-moon and officials
from the European Union are due to attend.
The mini-summit will take place after the UN Security
Council votes on France's plan to deploy about 1 000 soldiers to take on an
active fighting role alongside a flagging African-led "stabilisation
mission" in CAR.
The mineral-rich but impoverished nation has been plagued by
coups and rebel uprisings since it gained independence from France in 1960.
The African force for CAR aims to have 2 500 troops but it
has been hampered by a lack of funds, arms and training.
France in January intervened in its former colony Mali to
stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital in a move that
was hailed worldwide and boosted Hollande's sagging popularity back home.
Paris has a long history of interventions in Africa. It
joined international military efforts to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi
and sent troops to Ivory Coast after a rebellion split the world's top cocoa
producer in half.
It has also sent soldiers in the past to other African
flashpoints including Chad, Zaire, Rwanda and Gabon.
Paris not 'the policeman of Africa'
Hollande, in line with France's avowed intention to forsake
the so-called policy of "Francafrique", has said that Paris will
"always be at Africa's side" but not be "the policeman of
Critics of "Francafrique" - a term denoting
Paris's complex military and political ties with former colonies - say the
policy is aimed at maintaining puppet states and keeping corrupt and despotic
regimes in power if it suits French interests.
But the rise of Islamists in a vast swathe of the Sahara and
nearby areas, piracy off the lawless waters of Somalia and the rising tide of
illegal migration from Africa are factors weighing against a more discreet role
Experts say given the state of affairs on the ground, France
will be pushed towards intervention, especially in former colonies.
This is due in part "to a certain vision of what its
responsibilities are and its moral commitment to protect civilians", said
Aline Leboeuf from the French Institute of International Relations.
"Even if Paris has a real wish to remain in the
background of a multilateral action, there are players who actually are waiting
for it to intervene", she said.
Another key issue in the summit is a plan by the African
Union to put in place a rapid reaction force to deal with coups, rebellions and
unrest on the continent.
The AU's standby brigade has made little headway since
preparations for a proposed force of 32 500 troops and civilians drawn from the
continent's five regions started a decade ago.
New economic partnership
The Paris conference will also discuss a new economic
partnership between Africa and France, based on a report drafted by French
Foreign Minister Pierre Moscovici.
The West has been worried by Beijing's growing economic
muscle in Africa. China overtook the United States as Africa's biggest trading
partner in 2009 and critics accuse Beijing of turning a blind eye to rights
abuses and rampant corruption in its bid to source raw materials from the
region and sell finished goods there.
A West African diplomat said he hoped that the French report
would entail "a shared economic agenda that would take into account
everybody's interests and lead to a win-win" situation.
In parallel events on the fringes of the summit will be
trade discussions between more than 500 African and French business leaders,
and talks on conservation of threatened species as well as climate change.
Fifty-four countries have been invited but only Zimbabwe,
whose veteran leader Robert Mugabe is still considered a pariah in the West for
trampling on democracy, will not send a delegation.