Djerba – The world’s French-speaking countries gathered in Tunisia on Saturday for talks focused on economic cooperation, but faced calls to do more to resolve international crises.
The head of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (IOF) urged the organisation to use its clout in a world “fractured” by multiple 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.
Around 30 heads of state and government, including French and Senegalese presidents Emmanuel Macron and Macky Sall, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, attended the summit on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba.
The event is a diplomatic boon for President Kais Saied, whose government has faced international criticism since a sweeping power grab last year.
While the two-day meeting and an associated economic forum will officially focus on technology and development, it is also an opportunity for Western and African leaders to discuss issues like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mishikiwabo did not mention the conflict in her speech, but Macron’s aides said he was to discuss it with other leaders.
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 governments’ swift support for Kyiv.
Earlier, 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”.
Macron, who also attended the G20 summit in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting earlier this week, is not due to address the summit.
The summit will belatedly mark the 50th anniversary of the now 88-strong bloc whose members, such as Armenia and Serbia, are not all French-speaking.
Some 321 million people around the world speak French, a number expected to reach 750 million in 2050.
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 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a lull was reported on the front lines after several days of intense fighting.
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 in moves condemned by Western nations including France and Canada.
French political researcher Vincent Geisser said hosting the summit would help Saied “leave his isolation – at least temporarily”.
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, Macron’s office announced a 200-million-euro loan to Tunisia, which is in the final stages of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $2-billion bailout package for its crippled economy.
But an official from OIF heavyweight Canada said Ottawa wanted to echo concerns for democracy following Saied’s power grab.
Tunisia is confronted by a deep economic crisis that has pushed a growing number of its people to try to reach Europe.
Seeking to draw delegates’ attention to the issue, hundreds of protesters tried Friday to highlight the disappearance of 18 Tunisians aboard a boat that set out in September.
Police prevented them from reaching Djerba.