- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

PARIS, Feb. 21 (UPI) — French President Jacques Chirac on Friday outlined a new, more equal partnership between France and Africa that would comprise cooperation on matters ranging from economic development to fighting terrorism and organized crime.

"There has been a real evolution, a real modernization in relations between Africa and France," Chirac told reporters at the end of a three-day summit with African leaders in Paris. "We have an approach that is completely new compared to past years — not that I criticize the past years, but we must adapt to new times."

Gathering leaders and representatives from 52 African countries, the Paris meeting focused on ways to speed up African development from improving access, potable water and education to securing democracy and the rule of law.

Only Somalia, with no recognized government, was not represented.

Chirac called for richer nations to scrap subsidies on agricultural exports to Africa and to establish a 10-year period granting favorable trade terms for African exports. The matter will likely be raised during the G-8 summit of industrialized nations, scheduled for June in Evian, France.

Even before the Africa summit's opening, the French government announced Africa had returned to the "heart" of France's diplomacy after a decade of disengagement.

France's former leftist government had worked under a philosophy of "neither meddling nor indifference" in its relations with Africa, particularly its former colonies. But that policy was left in tatters last fall when conflict broke out in Ivory Coast, the one-time jewel of France's colonial crown. Some 3,000 French soldiers are now stationed in the West African country to keep peace and to protect foreign citizens.

Chirac warned African leaders this week that securing and keeping power through violence and intimidation could no longer be tolerated.

On Friday Robert Menard, head of the Paris-based activist group Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders), directly challenged the French president to respond to reports that some African leaders were directly implicated in the torture, killing and disappearance of journalists on the continent.

"It's true the problem exists, nobody contests it," Chirac acknowledged. "And I can say it was part of the concerns during a large section of the summit and by its participants. It's part of the requirements of a real democracy — that regimes be founded on the respect of others."

But Chirac said he believed "step by step … this progress will be assured."

The French president received a boost for another favorite cause Thursday when the African Union endorsed his call for a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi crisis. He suggested Friday that the United States may ultimately fail to secure U.N. endorsement of a war on Baghdad — a matter that has divided and weakened the security council.

But Chirac discounted fears the differences would ultimately render the United Nations obsolete.

"I'm not at all worried for the United Nations," the French President said. "One can imagine a war without the United Nations. But it is certain that we cannot imagine peace without the United Nations."

The Franco-African summit was marked by the controversial presence of Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe, widely criticized for human rights abuses at home. Britain was particularly unhappy about the French invitation, and protesters staged a series of anti-Mugabe demonstrations in Paris.

Equally controversial was the absence of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who appears to have backtracked on peace accords, struck with rebel leaders in Paris last month. Both Chirac and visiting U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan repeated calls for both sides to honor the agreement.

Annan also urged industrialized and African countries to work to eradicate AIDS, which has crippled the continent.

"AIDS is destroying not only the present but the future of Africa by taking away the most productive in society," the U.N. leader said, adding African women, who account for 58 percent of those affected, should be a particular target.

"AIDS in Africa today has a woman's face," he said. "If we are going to save Africa, we must save the African woman."

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