President Emmanuel Macron vowed Friday a full reckoning with the legacy of colonialism as young Africans assailed France's "arrogance" and "paternalism" at a conference aimed at forging a new partnership with the continent.
"We as Africans feel the pain of colonisation every single day," Adelle Onyango, a Kenyan media figure, told Macron during a panel discussion, accusing France of living in "denial" of its "destructive past".
"What we end up with is scepticism of what exactly does France stand for," she said to fierce applause at the meeting of around 3,000 Africans invited to the gathering in Montpellier.
Onyango was one of 11 young Africans who politely peppered Macron with criticism during a plenary session, and urged him to support democratic renewal in countries where leaders are holding onto power under "democratic dictatorships".
"Stop cooperating and collaborating with these dictator presidents," said Cheikh Fall, an influential Senegalese blogger, asking that France offer an apology for colonial-era crimes.
Macron responded that Paris routinely voiced disapproval of political or military coups on the continent, and reduced cooperation with authoritarian regimes.
"I have never set up a military base unless being asked" by democratically legitimate leaders, he added.
With regards to France's colonial past, Macron said that "asking for an apology is too easy... I don't believe that we can free ourselves of this history."
"I believe in a policy of recognition," he said, while promising that an honest assessment of France's colonial past would be introduced in school curriculums. "I want us to accept this truth together."
Billed as a chance to prove France's commitment in particular to young Africans, Macron's Africa-France summit pointedly excluded other government leaders to encourage open and sometimes blunt exchanges.
"Africa is not a continent of misery and unemployment, but a young, optimistic and enthusiastic continent," said Adam Dicko, a young Malian activist.
She lambasted France's Barkhane anti-jihadist force in her country, saying "foreign military interventions have never solved anything".
Macron has announced a drawdown of the 5,500 French troops across the Sahel region of West Africa, and he acknowledged they could not remain in Mali or any other country indefinitely.
"But I cannot tell anyone what policies to pursue -- You play an important role in that, and you're doing it," he said.
Cameroon intellectual Achille Mbembe, who was tasked with organising the meeting, said in a report to Macron this week that France was failing to recognise "new movements and political and culture experiments" underway in several countries.
His recommendations included concrete steps such as a fund for promoting democratic initiatives and increased opportunities for students to study abroad.
Mbembe also urged more restitution of African cultural treasures looted in the colonial era, an increasingly sensitive question for younger generations.
Macron announced that 26 artworks and other prized artefacts long sought by Benin would be returned toward the end of this month after years of debate.