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French-African Summit Opens in Paris Wednesday

Leaders from 37 African countries gather Wednesday in Paris for a three-day summit aimed at reinforcing French-African relations. This is a troubled time for Africa, and for France, as it searches to define its African policy.

The summit begins Wednesday with a formal dinner at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris and ends Friday with a closing ceremony at an elegant conference hall on the city's outskirts.

The summit's theme, to be discussed by French President Jacques Chirac and more than three dozen African heads of state, is "Africa-France, Together for a New Partnership."

But that task does not promise to be easy. Countries like Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic are fighting rebel insurgencies. Others, like Liberia and Zimbabwe, are shunned by some in the international community for alleged human rights and other violations.

France was criticized for inviting Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, to the Paris summit. French and Zimbabwean human rights groups released a report in Paris, detailing alleged attacks and other offenses against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe.

Overall, says Antoine Bernard, president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, the situation in Africa regarding human rights is bleak.

"It makes this summit in Paris an important moment for human rights questions to be raised," he said. "And FIDH wonders whether this summit does not raise the proper questions, as to the impunity to be challenged by authors of massive humanrights violations."

Noticeably absent at the summit will be Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who has announced he would send his new prime minister instead.

Mr. Gbagbo has backtracked on a January peace agreement struck in Paris with Ivorian rebels. Thousands of his supporters have denounced France for promoting the deal, and Mr. Gbagbo's wife has criticized Paris.

For African experts like Daniel Bourmaud, the Ivorian turmoil raises new questions about waning French influence on the continent. Mr. Bourmaud, an African politics professor in Paris, says France has no coherent African policy. Instead, he says, the French government is finding piecemeal responses to a variety of African conflicts.

But Elysee Palace officials say President Chirac wants to restore Africa to the so-called heart of French priorities. The Chirac government is also expected, during a June G-8 summit in Evian, France, to ask the international community to do more for Africa