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Paris (AFP) Dec 05, 2013
France will seek to recast its role in Africa at a summit starting Friday, hoping to shed its image as the continent's policeman even as it prepares to send troops for the second time this year.
President Francois Hollande will host some 40 African leaders in Paris for the ambitious two-day summit, as he looks to secure his nation's influence in the face of the growing clout of China and other developing economies.
Once master of expanses of northern, central and western Africa, France has played a crucial role in its post-colonial history, intervening militarily more than 20 times since the early 1960s.
French boots are about to hit the ground again, with plans for more than 1,000 soldiers to be deployed to help restore order in the lawless Central African Republic (CAR).
It will be France's second military operation in Africa this year, after Hollande sent more than 4,000 troops to oust Islamist rebels in control of northern Mali in January.
But officials insist his message at the summit will be that Africa needs to begin looking after itself.
"Africa needs to start taking responsibility for its own security," a French diplomatic source told AFP ahead of the summit.
The leaders will on Friday hold talks on cross-continent security issues like terrorism, piracy and trafficking, including efforts to set up an African Union-run reaction force to deal with unrest.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon and EU leaders are also to take part and a separate mini-summit on the CAR crisis will be held on Saturday.
Hollande has vowed to break with France's old way of looking at Africa -- a system dubbed "Francafrique" that saw Paris use its economic influence and military muscle to prop up dictators or back up rebellions in its own interests.
Officials say the CAR intervention highlights Hollande's different approach, as France is seeking UN Security Council backing for the mission and operating in support of an African mission already on the ground.
Still, experts say France is hardly retreating from its longstanding military role in Africa.
Of the about 7,500 French soldiers deployed overseas as of December 1, more than 5,300 were in the continent, at a string of bases across western and central Africa, according to defence ministry figures.
In a report in May, London-based Chatham House quoted official sources saying France's permanent military presence in Africa costs it upwards of 400 million euros ($540 million) per year and that the budget was expected to rise.
"France wields a level of influence in sub-Saharan Africa that it cannot command anywhere else in the world," the report said.
"In crisis situations, it is still seen as a key source of diplomatic, military or even financial pressure."
A key government report on defence policy in April even highlighted a particular role for Africa in France's long-term defence and security strategy.
Analysts said that will make it hard for Hollande to push through a new approach.
"Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, every president from the left or the right... has spoken of breaking away and changing direction," Africa specialist Antoine Glaser said.
"In fact there is no 'new' policy. France's African policy has always been the one of the French military," he said.
China now Africa's largest trading partner
Even some African officials admit the continent will continue to need military help from abroad.
"Africans can make their own efforts, particularly in terms of equipment," an African diplomatic source said, "but we have enormous needs in terms of logistics and training."
On Saturday, the leaders at the summit will turn to economic questions, with France pushing a new partnership plan with Africa drafted by Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.
With China now Africa's largest trading partner and countries like India and Brazil scaling up their presence, France is anxious to tap into the continent's rapidly growing economies.
It already has a strong presence in Africa -- which accounts for three percent of French exports -- but its share of the African market has been falling for decades.
Hollande said ahead of the summit that the goal was to double trade with Africa, which he said would create 200,000 jobs if done within five years.
More than 500 African and French business leaders were to take part in trade talks on the sidelines of the summit, which was also to discuss endangered species and climate change.
French forces get UN green light for C.Africa operation
The CAR, which gained independence in 1960, occupies a strategic position in the heart of Africa and bases there allowed France to also send reinforcements to Chad in the 1980s.
Here are some facts about past military interventions:
- September 20-21, 1979: France stages Operation Barracuda, during which Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, at the time in Libya, is overthrown by French paratroopers. Former president David Dacko resumes power and re-establishes the republic.
Denounced as a bloody dictator by human rights organisations, Bokassa during his reign carried out widespread repression and ordered the assassinations of politicians and army officers. His downfall was assured after a massacre of civilians in Bangui during food riots and the slaughter of schoolchildren.
- April 1996-June 1997: The country is rocked by three successive mutinies. French Operation Almandin ensures security for foreigners and the evacuation of 1,600 people. In 1997, after the slaying of two French soldiers, Paris carries out an operation against mutineers in Bangui.
On April 15, 1998 the last French troops leave the CAR. At one point 1,400-strong, the French troops, stationed under a military assistance accord signed in 1966, help to train CAR troops and more recently to maintain security in the capital. They are replaced by a pan-African force.
- 2003: 200 French soldiers are deployed in the framework of Operation Boali for logistical missions, but also intelligence gathering and training, in support of a force mandated by the Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC).
- 2006 and 2007: France intervenes with Mirage F1 fighter jets to support Bangui's troops in the northeast of the country. In March 2007, several dozen French soldiers are parachuted into the country to help retake from rebel hands Birao airport, in the far northeast.
- December 30, 2012: An extra 180 French soldiers arrive from Gabon to reinforce Bangui, bringing their number to 580. The reinforcements came as Seleka rebels call for the departure of President Francois Bozize, who was overthrown in March 2013. Some of the reinforcements are withdrawn in early June, 2013, bringing the French troop strength to more than 400 men.
- December 2013: Paris has sent reinforcements again bringing to 650 the number of French troops already in the CAR. Another 350 forces are massed at the Cameroon border, ready to move in.
Up to 1,200 French soldiers could eventually support the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA), a regional force with some 2,500 men on the ground and around another thousand on the way.
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