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French, African Business Leaders Seek Greater Partnership

French and African economic representatives chat during the 2nd 'Africa France Business Meetings' held in Bordeaux, 02 Jun 2010

As French and African leaders pledged closer business ties at a summit this week, business leaders from both regions were in the French city of Bordeaux to try to make those promises a reality.

A tourist train chugging through the Mauritanian desert? It's been realized by one French company - bringing jobs to Mauritanians and aid to two local schools.

Sustainable tourism in Africa was among dozens of presentations at a two-day forum here in Bordeaux that brought together some 200 French and African businesses - about two-thirds of them from Africa.

Half a century ago, 40 percent of France's trade was with Africa. Today, Africa accounts for only about two percent of French commerce, although French business dealings with Africa have increased sharply in recent years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

There's a good reason for the meeting. Faced with growing competition from China, Brazil and other new foreign investors, France is seeking greater economic clout in Africa. French President Nicolas Sarkozy made business the highlight of a two-day summit with African leaders this week in the French city of Nice.

Gerard Pafait has done business in Africa for 40 years. He heads a French association in Bordeaux that helped organize the business forum.

Parfait says the African entrepreneurs at the meeting represent the face of a new Africa. He says they hold the key for the continent's future growth.

Mamadou Dia, head of the Senegalese water company Senegalaise des Eaux, was among the African entrepreneurs scouting for business partners.

Dia says the Bordeaux forum allowed him to see what other African and European companies are doing in terms of the environment and sustainable development.

Massogbe Toure Diabate, who heads a cashew processing firm in Ivory Coast, says she hopes to sign some business agreements before leaving Bordeaux.

Not long ago, Diabate says, France was the only major player in Francophone Africa. No longer. As international business interests in the region grow, she say, Africa wants partners who can create jobs and successful relationships.

The meetings also underscored Bordeaux evolving image. During the 18th century, the city had the reputation as France's second biggest slave trading port. Today, Bordeaux is affiliated with several African cities.

Sophie Senghor heads international affairs for Bordeaux's mayor. She is of Senegalese origin.

Senghor says Africa is a priority in for the city. She notes that Bordeaux has a large community of ethnic Africans, most of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, and that the city wants to showcase its heritage.

Many of the African businesses that attended the forum hail from non-francophone countries - underscoring France's drive to develop ties beyond its former colonies.

Helen Emore heads the Warri Industrial Park project in Nigeria's Delta State. She says she had several fruitful meetings at the conference. But she says she had hoped for more.

"We haven't really met French businesses because French businesses haven't really come out. Rather, the French businesses that are here are businesses looking to export their products or selling to Africa. Yes, we welcome such businesses - but not now. They need quick returns, whereas we are looking for [businesses willing] to come to Africa and set up bases," said Emore.

Bordeaux businessman Gerard Parfait also says he was disappointed at the relatively low French turnout at the forum.

Parfait says some French businesses are apprehensive about investing in Africa - fears, he says, that do not reflect the reality of Africa today.