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Africa

Hollande's legacy overshadows Bamako France-Africa summit

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A Malian soldier stands guard at the international conference center of Bamako ahead of France-Africa summit in Bamako, Mali, January 12, 2017. Reuters/Luc Gnago

The 27th Africa-France Summit kicked off on Friday in the Malian capital Bamako with more than 30 African heads of state meeting French officials to discuss the threat of jihadists in the Sahel region and improve democracy in Africa. the meeting is also an opportunity for French president François Hollande to showcase his legacy.

The choice to hold the 27th Africa-France summit in Mali is not insignificant.

Bamako is where president François Hollande first revealed himself as an international statesman, when France's military launched Operation Serval in January 2013 as  jihadists allied to Tuareg rebels took control of the north of the country.

"I took the necessary steps and we intervened militarily, and what we did there in terms of fighting and logistics saved not only Mali but, undoubtedly, the whole of west Africa," he told RFI ahead of the summit.

This fighting talk from a Socialist who had vaunted his ordariness during his election campaign, contrasting it to the gung-ho approach of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, surprised many.

But it was welcomed by many Malians.

"France definitely saved the country from the jihadist threat and Malians are quite grateful for that," says Kamissa Camara, a programme manager at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.

The Franco-Malian credits Hollande with helping pull Mali back from the brink. Yet four years after the rebellion, insecurity persists.

Fragile security

The attack in 2015 on the Radisson Blu hotel, which left 20 people dead, most of them foreigners, made many people in Mali tense. To the point, that critics have questioned the soundness of holding the two-day summit in Bamako in the first place.

Security has since been beefed up and some 10,000 security personnel are on hand to protect the 3,000 delegates and heads of state who will be attending.

Talks are expected to focus on Africa's battle against jihadists. Though not its symptoms.

"The jihadist threat is not a Malian problem it's a west African problem," Kamissa Camara told RFI. "It's a Sahel problem, so the jihadists that France managed to shoo away from Mali, you can find them in northern Niger, in Chad, you can find them in Mauritania, in Algeria, so it's a regional problem that needs a regional solution."

CAR controversy

Shortly after the intervention in Mali, France embarked on a military campaign in Central African Republic (CAR), which was racked by sectarian violence in the wake of a coup.

That French military campaign was only meant to last six months but ended up lasting three years.

When it finally ended, it exposed French soldiers to allegations of child sexual abuse. Those charges have now been dropped.

This controversy didn not dampen the Hollande government's enthusiasm for military interventions.

Since 2014 the country has deployed around 4,000 soldiers in the Sahel region, south of the Sahara desert, as part of the Barkhane force that replaced Operation Serval.

Moreover, Paris is now training up more than 20,000 African soldiers to enable them to assume responsibility for their own security.

That number is expected to reach 25,000 per year by 2025, a French diplomatic source says.

Military tunnel-vision

Yet this focus of French foreign policy on security alone has disconcerted rights groups.

"When François Hollande was elected, he said that the Françafrique system was over," Laurent Duarte, the international coordinator of the organisation "Tournons la page" (Let's turn the page) told RFI, in reference to Paris's notorious post-colonial policy of self-interested meddling in the continent.

"This Françafrique system was based on and is still based on this military complex. Putting military intervention before democracy was a huge failure."

Other analysts like Camara argue that Hollande has engaged purely in realpolitik.

"France has had this complicated relationship with Africa for obvious reasons," he says. "But I think that we're slowly moving towards a politics that is based on the realities on the ground."

Françafrique lives on

That reality has included partnering with the region's strongmen to counter the jihadist threat. Operation Barkhane, a broader offensive against Islamist groups, has seen Paris partner with Chad, with some 3,000 French soldiers deployed in five African countries.

"France has made President Idriss Deby, a dictator [and chairman of the African Union], the centre of its military intervention in Africa," Duarte complains.

Some of the leaders attending this weekend's summit happen to have troubling records on human rights and civil liberties.

But, unlike Sarkozy, Hollande sought to secure approval both from the United Nations and the African Union before launching interventions in Mali and the CAR.

"Definitely the foreign policy of Nicolas Sarkozy was even worse than this one," says Duarte. "But, for us, what is disappointing is that François Hollande is still saying that he has the African Union's support but the AU today lacks credibility."

At the summit activists will be hoping for strong words from Hollande in promoting good governance and not just security.

But the French leader already has one foot out the door, so it will be up to his successor to rewrite France's Africa policy - or not, as the case may be.

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