President Chirac bids farewell to Africa at summit overshadowed by crises and China

An era draws to a close this week when French President Jacques Chirac hosts his last summit of leaders from Africa, a continent where France's traditional influence is being threatened by resource-hungry China.

The two lead candidates to succeed Chirac in presidential elections this spring have both made clear that reform of France's Africa policy can be expected if they win.

Change seems inevitable, since neither Segolene Royal nor Nicolas Sarkozy have the depth of contacts and personal friendships in Africa that Chirac built up over more than 40 years in politics, the last 12 as a president who worked to put African development on international agendas.

How to tap and protect Africa's natural resources, the continent's role in the world and the information age's impact on African society have been fixed as themes of discussion for the 40 heads of state and government expected Thursday and Friday in this Riviera city.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, also will attend for the first time. But Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was not expected: France appears keen to avoid the heat that it took from human rights campaigners, Britain and other nations for inviting him to a similar summit in Paris in 2003. Chirac's spokesman said Tuesday that a five-year-old EU travel ban on Mugabe has proved insurmountable.

The killing in the Sudanese region of Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died in fighting that U.S. officials have described as genocide, will also be discussed, Chirac's office said.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is expected at the summit. He has resisted United Nations efforts to deploy some 22,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, where his regime is accused of masterminding a brutal counterinsurgency against the region's ethnic African tribes.

China will not be represented in Cannes, but is forefront in French and African minds.

As a self-styled champion of African development, France can only welcome China's growing market for African oil and other resources. By Chinese count, China's trade with Africa soared to US$55.5 billion last year, overtaking Britain to become Africa's third largest trading partner after the United States and France, reports AP.

There also are concerns, however, that China is ignoring human rights and environmental standards in Africa, and that Chinese lending could fuel corruption and debt burdens and undermine international efforts to push African nations toward good governance and economic discipline.

But Chadian human rights campaigner Massalbaye Tenebaye said that France, as a former colonial power that has supported some questionable even brutal African regimes, is ill-placed to lecture China on how to behave on the continent.

"France is reaping what it sowed," he said. China "is another wolf making its way in amongst the sheep."

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