French-African Summit to Open in Mali

The French-African summit this weekend will not only be shadowed by problems in Africa, but also by recent events in France. Last month's riots, along with French plans to tighten immigration laws and controversial legislation on France's colonial legacy, have sparked controversy in Africa, as in France.

The two-day summit in Mali is expected to help reinforce long-standing ties between Paris and African countries, some of which are former French colonies. But a number of sensitive issues linger on the sidelines of the Bamako summit - even before the first handshake takes place between French President Jacques Chirac and 53 African heads of state.

The first is French plans to tighten its immigration legislation, announced this week by the country's prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. Another is a current controversy over the apparent killing of a man by French peacekeeping troops in the Ivory Coast. A law passed earlier this year to teach the positive role of French colonialism in French public schools has also sparked controversy in Africa.

And the violence that spread across France last month - largely perpetrated by ethnic African and North African youths - made headlines in Africa as well as in France. In both places, the unrest raised questions about French treatment of its ethnic immigrant population, many of whom are of African origin.

The issue is doubly sensitive since the future of African youths is one of the main themes of the two-day Bamako summit. Adding to the tension are recent statements by a few French politicians that polygamy - a practice widespread in Africa that exists in some immigrant families in France -- may have played a role in the violence.

But some experts doubt the anger on the African streets over such incidents will translate into undermining formal French-African relations. One of these is Roland Marchal, an African expert at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

"Because at the end of the day, from [the view of] African heads of state, France will still appear as one of the only states - or sometimes the only state - able to raise African issues in international forums and may be be less complacent about U.S. policy than the British," he said. "So for those reasons, the African heads of state may be able to find some kind of accommodation and sideline those very contentious issues."

Nor does Mr. Marchal believe the summit will spark much debate among French policymakers about France's role in Africa - or Africa's importance in French foreign policy. Paris has announced that French troops are likely to be shifted to different parts of the continent. But Mr. Marchal notes, for example, there has been little discussion in the French parliament about the future of 4,000 French peacekeeping forces now stationed in the Ivory Coast.



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