Prime Minister Lionel Jospin concluded a five-day tour of Africa on Sunday, pledging to end paternalism and form “a new kind of partnership” with the continent.
The journey was the latest move by France to redefine its relations with a continent where the French have exerted great influence for a century.
“The wish of the French government is not to do less, but to do better,” Jospin repeated on his visits to Senegal, Mali and Morocco.
France has traditionally played the role of benevolent patriarch across a large swath of Africa, where former French colonies gained prestige and financial benefits for remaining within Paris’s sphere of influence.
During a stop in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday, Jospin stressed that a new generation was opening the continent to new ideas, and “zones of influence inherited from the past are fading little by little.”
But he insisted that African development remains a priority. “France doesn’t think the time for aid has passed,” he said.
In August, conservative President Jacques Chirac began to shift French policy, saying that France would no longer serve as Africa’s policeman.
France, which has defense agreements with seven African countries, announced last summer it plans to cut troops in Africa from 8,000 to 5,000 and shut one of six bases there.
In October, Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, addressing OAU diplomats in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, stressed the increasingly multi-lateral approach France now favors.
The changing French policy comes as the United States asserts its influence in Africa. President Clinton is to visit the continent next year.
But French officials stress that France is in no way disengaging.
Proof came in the private five-day visit to Paris last week of the Republic of Congo’s new president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso.
Sassou-Nguesso, a general who seized power in October after four months of civil war, dined with Chirac Saturday. And from Paris, days earlier, Sassou-Nguesso announced his hopes for elections “as soon as possible” and plans for a “national debate” in his country in January.