French-speaking countries begin Tunisia summit focused on economy

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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 criticized 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 such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

About 30 heads of state and government, including the heads of six African nations and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the summit on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the International Organization of Francophonie (IOF) should be “a space of resistance and reconquest” and called for it to regain its role.

The bloc has been criticized for not using its strength to resolve crises.

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Macron noted that in North Africa the use of French has declined in recent decades.

“English is a new common language that people have accepted,” he said, while emphasizing that French “is the universal language of the African continent.”

Lack of solidarity

The presidents of Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mauritania, Niger and Burundi represent more than 320 million French speakers across the African continent, including Tunisia, organizers said.

Many African countries have denounced what they consider a lack of international solidarity in the face of the crisis on their continent, a major deal with the rapid support of European nations to Kyiv since the Russian invasion on February 24 of this year.

Normally held every two years, the meeting was postponed to 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.

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A boost for Saied

The summit and a two-day meeting of the organization’s economic forum next week will take place amid tight security.

In preparation for international meetings, the authorities have given Djerba a renovation, building new roads and improving infrastructure around the island which is a major tourist center and home to several historical sites, including one of Africa’s oldest synagogues.

Saied welcomed a host of leaders on a red carpet Saturday morning.

French political researcher Vincent Geisser said hosting the summit was a success for Saied.

The meeting would help Saied “leave his isolation – at least for a while” after Canada, France and other developed nations last year asked Saied to restore “constitutional order”.

‘More important than ever’

The summit will belatedly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the now 88-strong group of members, including Armenia and Serbia, not all of whom speak French.

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The French-speaking community in the world has about 321 million people, 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 was “more important than ever” and could bring added value to “most of the world’s problems”.

He said he would ask member states to “double their efforts” in the face of a decline in the use of French in international organizations.

Mushikiwabo recalled that promoting “peace, democracy and human rights” is also part of the OIF’s mission.

Participants plan to issue a final statement on major political, social and economic issues after the summit ends on Sunday, he said.

(with news wire)

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