By Keith Weir and John Irish
DEAUVILLE, France (Reuters) - Leaders of the Group of Eight called on Yemen's president to quit on Thursday, hoping to avert civil war flaring up in one part of the Arab world as they prepared to help new democracies flourish in another.
Starting a summit in the French seaside resort of Deauville, the G8 -- seven Western powers plus Russia -- were expected to endorse aid programs for Tunisia and Egypt, the vanguards of the Arab Spring, which has seen autocratic rulers overthrown.
But the bloodshed and fighting in the Yemeni capital Sanaa darkened any sense of congratulation and offered a stark reminder of the violence that has engulfed other states in North Africa and the Middle East, notably also Libya and Syria.
Summit host France said Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh must end his 33-year rule: "We deplore the fighting that occurred overnight which was a direct result of the current political impasse, for which President Saleh has direct responsibility due to his refusal to sign the GCC transition agreement," a foreign ministry spokesman said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council.
For the United States, to whom Saleh was long an ally in its conflict with al Qaeda, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Paris: "We continue to support the departure of President Saleh who has consistently agreed that he would be stepping down from power and then consistently reneged on those agreements."
In Deauville, Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Satoru Satoh also urged Saleh to sign a power transition deal he had negotiated with his opponents after mediation by Gulf states.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, said the summit would show Arabs on the street that the world stood behind them:
"I want a very simple and clear message to come out of this summit, and that is that the most powerful nations on earth have come together and are saying to those in the Middle East and North Africa who want greater democracy, greater freedom, greater civil rights, 'We are on your side'."
"We will help you build your democracy, we will help your economies ... we will help you in all the ways we can, because the alternative to a successful democracy is more of the poisonous extremism that has done so much damage in our world."
A host of other issues crowded in on a formal agenda whose slimness reflects the diminished role of the G8 in a world in which the developing economies, such as India and China, have taken a bigger part, though wider bodies like the Group of 20.
European members of the G8 -- France, Germany, Britain and Italy -- were expected to try to rally support from the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan for the EU candidate to run the International Monetary Fund in the face of discontent among the emerging economies, who want a bigger say at the IMF.
China raised the prospect of further wrangling over the choice of French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who quit when charged with attempted rape. Beijing urged "democratic consultation" on the IMF post, casting doubt on Paris's claim that Lagarde had China's backing.
Clinton also said the United States had no official position on Lagarde, though U.S. officials have indicated Washington would back her. And Clinton hinted that the U.S. government did welcome highly qualified women candidates.
After a morning of scattered bilateral talks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted a lunch to open the 24-hour summit. Deauville was largely sealed off from the outside world by heavy security, leaving a few hundred left-wing protesters to demonstrate in the port of Le Havre, 40 km (25 miles) away.
Russia, a post-Cold War addition to the G8 which often takes a contrary view to the seven Western powers, is opposed to the NATO bombing effort to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
There was no immediate sign, however, of significant new moves by Moscow to try to mediate between the warring parties.
The group will condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters, officials said.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan will brief the G8 on Tokyo's response to the nuclear crisis at Fukushima after the tsunami in March, part of a process of discussions aimed at improving the safety of nuclear power plants.
On the global economy, the future leadership of the IMF and efforts in the European Union to deal with sovereign debts that have pushed several states which use the euro currency into crisis, are likely to be discussed in tandem.
The Europeans, apparently with tacit support from the United States, have insisted on maintaining a convention that the IMF managing director should be chosen from Europe. The role of the global lender, notably under Frenchman Strauss-Kahn, in helping bail out Greece and other indebted EU states has been cited by European leaders as a factor in keeping the post for themselves.
However, the rising BRICS economies -- which includes Russia alongside China, India, Brazil and South Africa -- have decried the process of choosing a successor and want more of a say.
The effect of Greece's difficulties on the euro and hence on world currency markets is also a matter of concern for the non-European powers in Deauville, though European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told reporters as the summit began that the leaders were not negotiating any package for Athens.
Among a range of matters discussed among the leaders before lunch, U.S. President Barack Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he wanted a rapid entry for Moscow into the World Trade Organization. And Medvedev confirmed post-Soviet Russia's first big purchase of foreign arms -- ordering four amphibious assault ships from a French-led consortium.
Obama and Sarkozy led tributes to the Serbian government for its arrest of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. The French president called it "courageous" said it would bring former pariah Belgrade a step closer to integration with the EU.
(Reporting in Deauville by Alexei Anishchuk, David Ljunggren, Emmanuel Jarry, Francesca Piscioneri, Geert de Clercq, Gernot Heller, Brian Love, Jeff Mason, Nick Vinocur, John Irish, Keith Weir, Luke Baker, Marie Maitre, Steve Holland, Yann Le Guernigou, Yoko Kubota, Jon Boyle, Alastair Macdonald and Catherine Bremer; editing by Jon Boyle)