The AU is also staying away, sceptical about the meeting's purpose and annoyed about being kept out of the planning.

 

Concern

 

Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, have made Darfur a high priority amid concern that fighting and instability is spreading to neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic, two French allies in the region.

 

"It is not a peacemaking meeting. It is, on the contrary, a meeting to support the international efforts that have been deployed," Kouchner said on Sunday.

 

He said the meeting was aimed at offering support to the UN-AU joint effort, which will take over from a beleaguered AU force of 7,000 peacekeepers.

 

"If there are 20,000 soldiers coming in the hybrid force, whoever they are, they will have to be paid. And the 7,000 who are there now are not being paid, and they are doing nothing because they haven't received their salaries since January," he said.

 

"So if we continue like this, obviously it won't work."

 

Pressure on China

 

In a joint news conference with Kouchner on Sunday, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said: "It is a renewed push in which we can come together and look again at what we need to do."

 

The Paris conference has been seen as an opportunity to work towards ending the conflict in Darfur, in which at least 200,000 people have been killed and two million driven from their homes since 2003, according to the UN.

 

Pressure has been mounting on China to improve its human rights record, spearheaded by activists who accuse Beijing, Sudan's biggest oil importer, of bankrolling some of the atrocities in Darfur.

 

The new international push could see Khartoum come under pressure to deliver on its promise to allow a 23,000-strong peace force to be dispatched to Darfur and to re-start peace negotiations with anti-government fighters.

 

France's financial aid to Darfur remains low compared with other European powers.

 

UN figures show that France gave $5.25m in 2006 and $3.4m so far this year.