French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a plenary session at the Africa-France 2021 Summit in Montpellier, southern France, on October 8, 2021. (Photo by AFP)
Billed as a chance to prove France's commitment in particular to young Africans, the Africa-France summit gathering some 3,000 business leaders, artists and athletes in the southern city of Montpellier was largely dominated by the region's crises.
"I can no longer stand to see African youths dying in the sea" trying to reach Europe, a woman told Macron as he visited the dozens of round tables at the vast Sud de France arena overlooking the Mediterranean.
A young Guinean urged him to "support the transition" after the military coup that deposed the West African country's long-time president Alpha Conde last month.
Sibila Saminatou Ouedraogo, a Burkina Faso participant at the conference, said that African nations -- many of them former French colonies -- still laboured under a "relationship of dependency" towards France that was holding back their development.
More than 1,000 youths were at the gathering which, though dubbed a "summit" by the French hosts, pointedly excluded leaders other than Macron.
'System of humiliation'
The French president will later debate with 12 young people chosen by the Cameroon intellectual Achille Mbembe, who was tasked with organising the meeting.
"We hope that Montpellier will mark a fresh start -- that people listen to Africa and African youths, which have things to say to the world and France," said Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute.
But the meeting also comes as many youths in particular have bristled at Macron's decision to slash visas to Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians in a dispute on illegal immigration.
Mehdi Alioua, a political science professor in Rabat, denounced "a collective punishment" and a "system of humiliation" -- sparking fierce applause.
"We're stuck between condescending language from the West that want to educate Africans, and language from our governments claiming that the West wants to impose its values," said Habiba Issa Moussa, a Nigerian studying in France.
Expectations are high that Macron will announce concrete steps such as those proposed by Mbembe, which include a fund for promoting democratic initiatives or increased opportunities for students to study abroad.
In a report given to the president this week, Mbembe said France was failing to recognise "new movements and political and culture experiments" underway in several countries.
After arriving in Montpellier, Macron said 26 artworks and other prized artefacts stolen by French colonial forces from Benin a century ago would be returned this month as promised.