Hollande pledges to promote democracy at Africa summit

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

FRENCH PRESIDENT François Hollande has pledged to recast France’s relationships with its former colonies in Africa after repudiating the colonial era as an historical “mistake”.

On the eve of a visit to the Democractic Republic of Congo, where he will today join more than 70 world leaders for the biennial Francophonie summit, Mr Hollande said he would promote democracy in Africa and bring an end to opaque patronage networks between Paris and autocratic regimes on the continent.

Francophonie, a group of French-speaking or francophile states that latterly has focused on cultural and linguistic diversity, is meeting in the DR Congo for the first time in the organisation’s 35-year history.

“Times have changed,” Mr Hollande said in a television interview. “We are defining a new policy. France now wants to respect its counterparts while at the same time telling them the truth.”

Mr Hollande’s itinerary is replete with symbolism. He will go to Kinshasa without any company executives in his entourage – a shift from the business-focused African trips of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

Opinions were divided in Paris on whether Mr Hollande should attend the summit given Congo’s dire human rights record. He will attend the opening day’s events and then leave immediately.

In pre-summit interviews he has sharply criticised Kinshasa’s record. En route to the summit, Mr Hollande stopped over in Senegal, where in 2007 Mr Sarkozy made one of the most controversial speeches of his presidency by arguing that Africans had “too rarely entered history” and making uncritical allusions to colonialism.

“I am not giving a speech to erase a previous one. I am giving a speech to write a new page with Africa, because France and Africa have historical ties,” Mr Hollande said. “But [there are] also mistakes that need to be recalled, which is the case with colonisation and the slave trade.”

France’s colonial involvement in Africa formally ended in the early 1960s, but it has continued to exert direct and indirect influence over ex-colonies through an informal patronage system known as “Françafrique”, which Mr Hollande, like Mr Sarkozy before him, promised to end.

The shift in French-African relations is partly due to France’s changing economic priorities, with a greater focus on burgeoning markets in Asia and Latin America, as well as increasing competition for influence and business in Africa. France remains a huge investor and a major military force in Africa, however, with troops stationed in Djibouti, Senegal, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire.

Mr Hollande will also use the trip to defend a UN Security Council resolution allowing African powers to intervene in Mali, where Islamist militants have taken land covering the two thirds of the country’s north. “I think there will be a desire at the security council to launch this intervention force, but I must be very clear: it’s up to the Africans to decide,” he said.

Organisers see the Francophonie conference as an opportunity to move closer to a solution to the ongoing rebellion in Congo’s east.

Kinshasa has accused neighbouring Rwanda of backing rebels there in order to maintain control of a black market trade in Congo’s rich minerals deposits, a claim vehemently denied by the Rwandans. The choice of host reflects demographic changes in the French-speaking world too. Francophonie estimates that by 2050, about 85 per cent of the world’s 715 million French speakers will be in Africa.