"The road we must travel down is long and uncertain," Jacques Chirac said on Saturday at the opening of the 23rd French-Africa summit, attended by dozens of African leaders.
"But I'll tell you this: In the new century, Africa will impress the world with its achievements and its success. France expects to contribute to this renaissance," he said.
Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure called for a European and African conference to deal with the immigration issue. Chirac said Africans and Europeans "have to dismantle the clandestine immigration networks".
Year after year, tens of thousands risk their lives to get a chance at a better life in Europe, but some face deportation once they arrive or die before they get there.
"Thousands of young Africans leave their homes in pursuit of opportunities they hope to find elsewhere. They travel by way of the Sahara, the straits, and sometimes even the landing gear of planes," Toure said.
"How many [Africans] were drowned or were lost forever in the desert, or abandoned to their fates in makeshift boats? We will never know"
Amadou Toumani Toure,
"How many among them were drowned or were lost forever in the desert, or abandoned to their fates in makeshift boats? We will never know," he said, adding that African leaders must also fight illegal migrant networks.
Two months ago, hundreds of African immigrants made world headlines as they repeatedly tried to scale razor-wire fences to cross from Morocco into the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in late September and early October.
Last week, rescuers gave up all hope of finding 22 would-be illegal immigrants from northern Africa who had drowned in rough weather off southern Spain.
Conflicts in Sudan's violence-wracked Darfur region and war-divided Ivory Coast were also likely to be discussed during the two-day summit.
Since the first summit, in November 1973 in Paris, the number of participants has continually risen and now includes non-Francophone countries.
Gabon President Omar Bongo
has been in power for 38 years
This year, all of Africa's 53 presidents were invited. In attendance were Liberia's president-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, South Africa's Thabo Mbeki and Gabon's Omar Bongo, in power for 38 years and Africa's longest-serving leader.
Chirac praised the re-election of Bongo, though the opposition there denounced the vote as fraudulent.
Notably absent was Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who has been estranged from Chirac since French troops wiped out the Ivorian air force last year in retaliation for an unexplained Ivorian air strike that killed nine French troops deployed there.
The Africa-France summit is held every two years, alternately in France and Africa. It ends on Sunday.