PARIS (Reuters) - France will tell African leaders at a Paris summit on Friday it will no longer play policeman on the continent, even as it prepares to act in a new conflict in Central African Republic after its Mali intervention this year.
Held since 1975, the Africa-France summit was an opportunity for French and African officials to agree back-room deals to reward France for propping up sometimes corrupt regimes.
But a drive by France to clean up its African policy together with new powers such as China and Brazil seeking lucrative business on the continent will give a new tone to this week’s talks with some 40 African leaders.
“Mali, CAR - these are missions we can handle,” said one senior French diplomat.
“But this summit is about giving Africans the means to intervene alone in the future,” he said of the meeting bringing together presidents of Sierra Leone, Mali, Guinea, Niger, Burundi, Congo Republic, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea and others.
France’s stance on the Central African Republic (CAR), a former colony, has shown how far its policy has evolved, initially only sending in troops to protect its nationals and interests.
Paris first refused to agree to appeals by former President Francois Bozize for his “cousins” to help him fight Seleka rebels ousting him earlier this year.
And then, as soon as Bozize was ousted in March, Paris declined an African request to send more troops and drew down its troop numbers, saying it was up to Africans to do the job.
The message was clear. The old ways of doing business - a mix of post-colonial graft and patronage called “Francafrique” and which suited dictators and France alike - were over.
Paris will no longer prop up dictators or back rebellions and will seek U.N. mandates and consult African leaders before intervening.
“You can’t neglect French influence to help Africa resolve its problems, but the days of acting against Africa’s interests are over,” said another French diplomat. “It’s better to act with African backing than to intervene and steal their cash.”
With CAR falling into chaos since March, the United Nations will this week give France the nod to back African forces.
Adopting a “hands-off” policy on Africa may be easier said than done, however, as there is a clear lack of interest from its European and American allies to send boots on the ground.
“If France can do it and costs are reasonable then we’ll support them,” said one U.S. diplomat.
Moreover, African demand for French military muscle is if anything, greater than ever. One Ivory Coast official said without French help in 2011 to end a north-south civil war more people would have been killed.
“Were we supposed to wait until Africans finally decided to intervene? France came and helped us,” said the official.
There is a cost. France has about 10,000 troops operating in Africa, about half of all its overseas personnel.
Even after it pulled out troops from Afghanistan, 2013 has been the costliest for French overseas operations in a decade.
Its annual budget doubled to 1.25 billion euros ($1.69 billion), with 1 billion for Africa. In contrast, the U.S. cut by 10 percent, or $40 million, its 2014 budget for African operations.
The flip side is France’s new approach appears to be bearing economic fruit. Some 600 executives will meet at the summit to see how business ties between France and Africa can develop.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius travels at least once a month to Africa, including to areas not traditionally known for French influence such as Angola and South Africa, to try to promote economic interests to stimulate growth at home.
“These countries don’t like to be treated like Banana Republics. They have resources, financial means and growth,” said a French diplomat dealing with Africa. “Africa is not just about suffering. It could be a solution to our economic woes.”
The Paris meeting could also provide the opportunity for President Francois Hollande and his Nigerian counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou to discuss a 10-year uranium mining license with state-owned nuclear company Areva due to expire this month. Issoufou has said he wants a better deal.
“The French have good reason not to be seen scampering from Africa just when in so many parts of the continent countries and societies are turning a new leaf,” said Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
“We don’t want to be a prisoner of our past in Africa, but if we leave then we will miss the future.” ($1 = 0.7377 euros)
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; editing by Mark John and Elizabeth Piper