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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 12:33 GMT
Franco-African summit opens under cloud
Robert Mugabe and Jacques Chirac shake hands
Chirac briefly shook hands with Mugabe
The annual Franco-African summit has started in Paris, with continuing violence in the Ivory Coast and controversy over the attendance of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe expected to dominate the event.

Representatives and leaders from 52 African countries are attending the summit, the official theme of which stresses the importance of the two sides coming together "in a new partnership".

However the presence of the Zimbabwean president led to several protesters, including gay rights campaigners, demonstrating outside the hotel in parts of Paris.

[Mugabe] has done more good than bad for the Zimbabwean populace
Wilberforce Majaji, USA/Zimbabwe

Peter Tatchell has reportedly been detained by French police as he was planning to ambush Mr Mugabe's motorcade.

He has twice attempted to make a citizen's arrest on Mr Mugabe for human rights abuses.

French President Jacques Chirac told delegates France wished to "renew its commitment to stand alongside the people's of Africa".

Mr Chirac greeted Mr Mugabe with a handshake and brief nod, in contrast to warmer welcomes reserved for other dignitaries.

'Chance for dialogue'

France was allowed to make an exception to an EU ban on visits to members countries by Mr Mugabe and other senior Zimbabwean officials.

In return, Paris gave its backing to the renewal of EU sanctions against Mr Mugabe, his wife and other government officials.

Ivory Coast peace deal
Iraq crisis
Conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo

But France's stance has provoked fury from several European countries - including the UK, Zimbabwe's former colonial power, and the US.

The French Government says other African countries had threatened to boycott the meeting unless Mr Mugabe was there and argues that the summit is a chance to engage in dialogue with the Zimbabwean president over the situation in his country.

Mr Mugabe has met with international condemnation for his land redistribution policy and for last year's elections in which he was accused of using violence and fraud.

Zimbabweans are currently suffering from the famine which has swept much of southern Africa and which some say has been exacerbated by Mr Mugabe's policies.

However BBC world affairs correspondent Mark Doyle says the fact that Mr Mugabe was previously seen as a freedom fighter for his country led powerful African states such as South Africa and Nigeria to encourage France to bring Mr Mugabe, if only briefly, out of his isolation.

Ivory Coast is also expected to dominate proceedings, as France and its African allies struggle to find a peaceful solution to the once-peaceful French speaking country.

However Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo's controversial decision to stay away from the talks has dampened hopes that a solution can be found.



The BBC's Fergal Keane
"Mugabe's welcome was formal and brief"

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