The world’s French-speaking countries gathered in Tunisia on Saturday for talks focused on economic cooperation, more than a year after President Kais Saied began an internationally criticised power grab.
The two-day meeting and an associated economic forum will officially focus on technology and development, but it is also an opportunity for Western and African leaders to discuss issues like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Around 30 heads of state and government, including the heads of six African nations and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are at the summit on the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the International Organisation of Francophonie (IOF) should be “a space of resistance and reconquest” and called for it to reclaim its role.
The bloc has been criticised for failing to use its clout to resolve crises.
Macron noted that in North Africa the use of French has declined over the past few decades.
“English is a new common language that people have accepted,” he said, while highlighting that French “is the universal language of the African continent.”
Lack of solidarity
The presidents of Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mauritania, Niger and Burundi are representing more than 320 million French-speaking people across the African continent, including Tunisia, organisers said.
Many African countries have decried what they see as a lack of international solidarity in the face of crises on their continent, in sharp contrast with European nations’ swift support for Kyiv since the Russian invasion on 24 February this year.
Normally held every two years, the meeting was postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was delayed again last year after Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament, later dissolving the legislature entirely.
A boost for Saied
The summit and a two-day meeting of the organisation’s economic forum next week are taking place amid tight security.
In preparation for the international meetings, authorities gave Djerba a makeover, building new roads and improving infrastructure around the island that is a major tourist hub and home to several historical sites, including one of Africa’s oldest synagogues.
Saied welcomed a string of leaders on a red carpet Saturday morning.
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French political researcher Vincent Geisser said hosting the summit is a success for Saied.
The meeting would help Saied “leave his isolation – at least temporarily” after Canada, France and other developed nations last year called on Saied to restore “constitutional order”.
‘More pertinent than ever’
The summit will belatedly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the now 88-strong group whose members, such as Armenia and Serbia, are not all French-speaking.
The world’s French-speaking community is around 321 million-strong, and is expected to reach 750 million in 2050.
Louise Mushikiwabo, the group’s secretary-general and Rwanda’s former foreign minister, said the bloc is “more pertinent than ever” and able to bring added value to “most of the world’s problems”.
She said she would ask member states to “redouble their efforts” in the face of a decline in the use of French in international organisations.
Mushikiwabo recalled that promoting “peace, democracy and human rights” is also part of the OIF’s mission.
Participants plan to issue a final declaration on major political, social and economic issues after the summit ends on Sunday, she said.