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African troops march in Bastille Day parade

Reuters

Soldiers from 13 African nations marched in a rainy Paris on Wednesday, marking half a century of independence from colonial rule on the French national holiday. The occasion has drawn much commentary on France's relation with its former colonies, as well as concerns from human rights groups over the presence of possible war criminals.

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Twelve African heads of state joined French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the parade, an annual display of French military power.

"It is a blood tie that we are celebrating, the tie born of African troops' contribution to the defence and liberation of France", Sarkozy said, referring to Africans who fought for France during the 20th century's two world wars.

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The event is not intended to erase the effects of a colonial past, which would be impossible, says Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist who has written about African colonial history.

"It's an attempt on both sides to improve relations that sometimes get a little frayed", Wallerstein told RFI. "France certainly wants that, and a lot of these leaders want that."

But critics have denounced Françafrique, a term referring to a perceived tradition of corrupt relations between France and its former colonies.

Hundreds of people demonstrated on the eve of the parade, complaining of war crimes and other human rights violations in many of the former colonies, some of which are dictatorships today.

Sarkozy insisted the event was not about "colonial nostalgia", as he addressed the African leaders on Tuesday.

Previous 14 July festivities

"I know very well the notion of privileged and special relations, this flood of suspicions and fantasies, but the time has come to face up to it together, without inhibitions and without looking back", he said.

Heads of state present included those of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Togo.

Madagascar interim leader Andry Rajoelina, who faces sanctions for taking power last year, was not invited, but a contingent of the Malagasy army did participate in the parade.

And the president of Côte d'Ivoire, Luarent Gbagbo, with whom relations have been strained since that country's civil war from 2002 to 2004, declined an invitation to attend.

Gbagbo opted instead to send an envoy from his defence ministry.

"It's our celebration, which we will celebrate at home," said Pierre Kipré, the Côte d'Ivoire's ambassador in Paris.

"We see no reason to celebrate 50 years of independence in France."

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