Leaders of French-speaking world meet in Tunisia for Francophone co-operation summit

French is world's fifth most commonly spoken language

Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye, left, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, and Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault, seated right, during a meeting at the Francophone nations summit in Djerba, Tunisia, on November 19, 2022. AFP
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Leaders and senior officials from French-speaking countries gathered in Djerba, Tunisia, on Saturday, for a summit of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (IOF), calling for stronger trade links within the francophone world.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the event in what some observers saw as a boost for Tunisian President’s Kais Saied’s government, which has been battling economic malaise following a sudden increase in living costs.

Officially, the main focus of the conference is technology and development,

Mitigating the effect of global inflation in light of the Ukraine conflict was one of the topics.

French is an official language in 29 countries, including a number of African countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where at least 200 languages are spoken.

Around 300 million people globally speak French, making it the fifth most common language, a legacy of France’s colonial era, whose twilight began in the 1950s. The last French colony, Djibouti, gained independence in 1977.

The head of the IOF urged the organisation to use its clout in a world “fractured” by crises.

“The IOF must remain a link that can be used to prevent tensions from degenerating into conflicts,” said Louise Mishikiwabo, a former Rwandan chief diplomat.

Ms Mishikiwabo did not mention Rwanda's conflict with DRC in her speech, but Mr Macron's aides said he was to discuss it with other leaders.

Many African countries have decried what they feel is a lack of international solidarity in the face of crises on their continent, in sharp contrast with European governments' swift support for Ukraine.

Earlier, Mr Macron said the IOF should reclaim its diplomatic role, noting that in North Africa the use of French has declined over the past decades.

But he added that French remains “the universal language of the African continent”.

Mr Macron, who also attended the G20 summit in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) meeting earlier this week, is not scheduled to address the summit.

It will belatedly mark the 50th anniversary of the now 88-strong bloc whose members, such as Armenia and Serbia, are not all French-speaking.

Ms Mushikiwabo said the bloc today is “more pertinent than ever”, adding that promoting “peace, democracy and human rights” is also part of the OIF's mission.

But Senegalese civil society figure Alioune Tine said the group has shown itself to be “totally powerless in the face of fraudulent elections, third mandates (of African leaders) and military coups” in Mali, Guinea, Chad and Burkina Faso.

Saturday's meetings came as international calls mounted for rebels to lay down their arms in the eastern DRC, where a lull was reported on the front lines after several days of intense fighting.

The meeting, normally held every two years, was postponed in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was delayed again last year after Mr Saied suspended parliament, later dissolving it in moves that were condemned by western nations including France and Canada.

French political researcher Vincent Geisser said hosting the summit would help Mr Saied “leave his isolation, at least temporarily”.

Mr Saied said he wanted the conference to bring “tangible and effective” solutions to global problems.

“It's up to us to dream of a better world for all of humanity, and of universal development based on justice and freedom,” he said.

But Samira Chaouachi of the National Salvation Front, an alliance of anti-Saied political groups, told journalists it was “regrettable that Tunisia is hosting delegates at the Francophonie summit while its own institutions lack legitimacy.”

On Saturday, Mr Macron's office announced a €200 million ($207m) loan to Tunisia, which is in the final stages of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $2-billion bailout package for its economy.

Updated: November 20, 2022, 5:28 PM