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Paris (AFP) Dec 06, 2013
French President Francois Hollande on Friday told African leaders it is time for their continent to take charge of its own security as a major summit went ahead against the sombre backdrop of mourning for Nelson Mandela.
Hollande unveiled a major new initiative under which France would train 20,000 African troops per year as part of efforts to give the continent a greater capacity to handle its own security problems.
But what would have been a headline-making pledge on any other day was overshadowed as the summit succumbed to the emotion that has washed over much of the world in the wake of Mandela's death.
Hollande began the two-day meeting, attended by some 40 African leaders, by delivering an emotional tribute to the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.
"He became a global hero because he was profoundly human and profoundly good," the French Socialist leader said.
Flags above the presidential Elysee Palace flew at half-mast and, prior to a minute's silence, the leaders listened to a recording of part of Mandela's Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, standing in for President Jacob Zuma, said Mandela would not have wanted his death to hold up business for too long.
"Last night, when the news broke out, we were saying to each other: What do we do? Do we pack our bags? Do we hide under our beds and lament his passing on?" she said.
"We agreed that this is not the way he would have loved to be celebrated.
"Africa is not free until it is totally free from insecurity, from wars, from underdevelopment, from poverty and inequality.
"This is the befitting tribute to Madiba, to... continue on this journey of discussing how we should continue working together to find African solutions to African problems."
France wants to shed image as Africa's policeman
Underlining France's desire to rid itself of its reputation for post-colonial meddling in Africa's affairs, Hollande said Africa had to develop the means to sort out its own problems.
Speaking less than 24 hours after he ordered French troops into the crisis-wracked Central African Republic (CAR), Hollande said Paris was ready to help turn tentative plans for the creation of an African rapid reaction force into reality.
France has deployed 1,200 troops to CAR in support of a larger African force that will attempt to stabilise a country in danger of being engulfed by sectarian violence which left more than 120 people dead on the streets of the capital Bangui on Thursday.
The CAR mission will be France's second military intervention in Africa this year. In January, Hollande sent more than 4,000 troops to Mali, where Islamist groups had seized control of much of the north of the country and had threatened to advance on the capital Bamako.
France has sent troops into Africa more than 20 times since the early 1960s, frequently in undisguised pursuit of its own strategic interests.
But Hollande's government insists it wants to break with that tradition and shed its role as the continent's policeman.
Paris currently has more than 5,000 troops stationed at bases across Africa and the cost of maintaining them stands at 400 million euros ($540 million) per year.
The possible creation of an African force capable of intervening in hotspots was among the issues discussed Friday, along with terrorism, piracy and trafficking.
The CAR crisis is due to be examined after the end of the main summit on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday's morning session will focus on economic issues, 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 steadily since its retreat from empire in the 1960s.
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.
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