President Nicolas Sarkozy, in Africa with a team of French executives eager for deals, urged Congo and its former enemies on Thursday to launch a new partnership based on exploiting the region's natural riches.
Sarkozy's appeal in the Democratic Republic of Congo helped calm the anger of some Congolese who interpreted his call in January for the vast country to share the wealth of eastern provinces with neighbouring Rwanda as a slight on sovereignty.
I have certainly not come to tell you what to do, Sarkozy told Congo's parliament on the first visit by a French president in 25 years.
The truth is that the peoples of central Africa will not change their address, nor the laws of nature. If they cooperate as good neighbours, they will be rich and peaceful. But if it is survival of the strongest, they will remain poor and unhappy.
A tussle for mineral riches, as well as national and ethnic rivalries, fuelled more than a decade of conflict in the region.
Sarkozy's delegation includes executives from firms keen to get contracts to rebuild a country devastated by long neglect as well as war. France's state-controlled nuclear energy group Areva signed a uranium mining and prospecting deal with Congo.
Sarkozy commended Congolese President Joseph Kabila for reducing tensions with former enemies Uganda and Rwanda.
Kabila has allowed soldiers from both countries, who fought against him alongside Congolese rebels in a 1998-2003 war, to hunt down rebel militia groups operating in the former Belgian colony's lawless eastern borderlands.
Opposition parliamentarian Thomas Luhaka said Sarkozy had made clear his comments in January were misunderstood.
I think it was very important to clear that up, he said.
Sarkozy is travelling with executives from groups including France Telecom, the world's top cement maker Lafarge and Vinci, the biggest public works and transport concessions group, which is set to renovate Kinshasa's airport.
He crossed the Congo river by helicopter to Brazzaville, capital of the smaller Republic of Congo, a former French colony with longstanding business and political links to Paris. French companies, led by Total, dominate its oil industry.
Sarkozy told parliament in Brazzaville that his government would renegotiate accords with African nations, doing away with secretive deals which he said had bred suspicion in the past.
I intend to publish these accords in their entirety ... I will not be a president who signs secret deals, he said.
He also pledged not to take sides when President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a long-standing ally of France, stands for re-election in July.
On Friday he will visit Niger, a major source of uranium for Areva, which is creating a huge new mine there.
Niger is one of France's poorest former colonies but is the scene of rapid mining development after a recovery in uranium prices in the past few years as nuclear energy has come back into vogue.
Areva, which already operates Niger's two biggest uranium mines, signed a deal in January to create what it says will be Africa's biggest uranium mine in northern Niger, a mineral-rich region in the grip of a two-year rebellion by Tuareg nomads.
A Tuareg group and a German non-governmental organisation said this week they planned to sue Areva for incitement of hatred, racial violence and discrimination. They accuse Areva of asking France to arm the Niger government in its fight against rebels Niamey describes as drug runners and arms traffickers.
Areva's head office declined to comment on the case. (Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Yann Le Guernigou in Paris; writing by Alistair Thomson and Joe Penney)
© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved