France to take tougher line with African leaders at Congo summit
By Jonny Hogg and John Irish | October 11, 2012 9:35 AM EST
President Francois Hollande looks set to make African leaders sweat at a gathering of French-speaking nations in Democratic Republic of Congo this week, when he attempts to cut murky ties with France's former colonies.
More than 70 French-speaking countries, many of them African, will arrive in Kinshasa for the 14th annual Francophonie summit October 12-14, with Congo's eastern rebellion and the Islamist takeover of Mali's north to top the agenda.
Hollande has vowed to promote democracy in a continent known for flawed elections and 'sit-tight' leaders, and, unlike his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, he will travel to Africa without any company executives, something that would "muddy the waters", one adviser said.
In a sign he means business, he put pressure on the summit's host by saying democracy in Congo, a former Belgian colony, and its rights record is "totally unacceptable", an apparent swipe at 2011 polls that won President Joseph Kabila a second term.
"I will address those within French-speaking countries to tell them that this is their language, but there is also the language of values and principles. Among those values and these principles is democracy, good governance and the fight against corruption," Hollande said in Paris late on Tuesday.
Yamina Benguigui, France's Minister for the Francophonie said the summit would be an opportunity to set Hollande apart from Sarkozy, who caused outrage in 2007 in Dakar in a speech laced with allusions to colonialism and the suggestion that Africa had failed to embrace progress.
The shift in French-African relations is arguably due to France's changing economic priorities - away from Africa and toward the burgeoning markets of China and Latin America.
Still, France remains a top investor in Africa. Foreign direct investment in the continent hit $5.5 billion in 2008, up from $75 million in 2003, and was $1.4 billion in 2009 as the global crisis slowed investment worldwide, U.N. trade body UNCTAD said.
While its economic influence has waned, France remains a major player in military terms, with troops stationed in several African states from the tiny nation of Djibouti to bases in Senegal, Chad and Ivory Coast.
Congo's government was hoping the arrival of dozens of heads of state would help an international reputation tarnished by an out-of-control insurgency and a dire human rights record.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the summit was a chance for Congo to close the book on its turbulent past, marked by a war that killed millions and decades of state-level graft that has left most of its people in poverty.
"For many years we were seen as a failed state. But people will come here and see we are not failed, we are a state like any other," Mende said.
Kabila's government has deployed gangs of street sweepers to clean up the dusty capital, decorated lampposts with colourful flags, and opened a new lavishly lit five-star hotel and a fake African village of grass huts in preparation.
But in a sign the government is also aware of the risk of trouble, police water cannon trucks this week were filling up in plain view of the public, metres from a central roundabout festooned with Congolese national flags.
A top official for Congo's UDPS opposition party said it was planning protests around summit venues and was hoping to arrange for a meeting between Hollande and Congo's veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who says he was cheated of victory in last November's polls.
"The Congolese, we're split in two. In the east there's a war and every minute someone is being killed or a woman is being raped," said student Patrick Tumba Malumba, standing near Kinshasa's squalid and chaotic scrap metals market. "I don't think the Francophonie is going to solve that."
Human rights group Amnesty International said it called on the Francophonie to condemn human rights violations and engage Congolese authorities to stop the raging eastern rebellion, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
Congo, Africa's second-largest copper producer, is on track for 7.2 percent growth this year according to the IMF, but the country is ranked 6th worst in the World Bank's ease of doing business survey. Investors say social unrest, political turmoil, corruption and worries over contract sanctity after a mining sector review are the main concerns.
"The bad business climate unfortunately stems currently from inside the administration, so we cannot claim to improve the business climate if you don't work on the administration," said Bob Tumba, the president of the new technologies committee for the Congolese Federation of Enterprises.
He said the Francophonie summit could help the world to recognise Congo's problems. "It's important that outside eyes are watching what happens here."
The organisers of the Francophonie see the conference - the first to be held in central Africa - as an opportunity, at least, to get closer to a solution to the ongoing rebellion in Congo's eastern hills.
Congo has accused neighbouring Rwanda of backing the rebels in order to maintain control of a blackmarket trade in Congo's rich minerals deposits - a claim vehemently denied by Kigali.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Louise Ireland)