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Hollande eyes new chapter in Franco-African relations

Thursday, 11 Oct 2012 | 1:48 PM ET

* Socialist leader sees colonial era as historical "mistake"

* Aims to promote democcracy in Africa

PARIS, Oct 11 (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande said on the eve of his first state visit to Africa that he wanted to open a new chapter in France's relations with former colonies and would denounce a period of colonisation as a historical "mistake".

Hollande, who heads to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday for a gathering of French-speaking nations, has promised to promote democracy in Africa and break with an era of collusion between French and autocratic African leaders.

He is travelling to Kinshasa to meet leaders from more than 70 francophone countries, many of them African, without any company executives in his entourage - a shift from the business-focused trips of conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Times have changed," Hollande said on Thursday in an interview with three public broadcasters. "We are defining a new policy. France now wants to respect its counterparts at the same time as it tells them the truth."

Illustrating the pledge, Hollande pressured the summit's host by saying democracy in Congo, a former Belgian colony, and its rights record were "totally unacceptable" - a swipe at the 2011 election that saw President Joseph Kabila re-elected to a second term.

The statement marked a change in tone from the Sarkozy era, when France often kept silent about electoral fraud.

Sarkozy sparked outrage in much of French-speaking Africa in 2007 when he suggested to an audience in Dakar that the continent had failed to embrace progress and made uncritical allusions to colonialism.

"I am not giving a speech to erase a precedent, I am giving a speech to write a new page with Africa, because France and Africa have historical ties," Hollande said.

"But (there are) also mistakes that need to be recalled, which is the case with colonisation and the slave trade."

France's colonial empire, founded in the 16th century, reached a peak in the early 20th when it covered nearly all of West Africa. The colonial era ended in 1962 when Algeria, which was not considered a colony but a part of metropolitan France, won its independence following a long guerrilla war.

However, France continued for decades to exert direct and indirect influence over ex-colonies through a murky system of patronage known as "Francafrique", which Hollande has promised to eradicate.

Hollande will also use the trip to defend a U.N. Security Council resolution allowing African powers to intervene in Mali, where Islamist militants have taken land covering the two thirds of the country's north.

"I think that there will be a desire at the Security Council to launch this intervention force but, I must be very clear, it's up to the Africans to decide," he said.

(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Mark Heinrich)

((nicholas.vinocur@thomsonreuters.com)(+33 1 4949 5188)(Reuters Messaging: nicholas.vinocur.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: FRANCE AFRICA/