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Quebec Premier Pauline Marois leaves the Francophonie summit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Sunday. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois leaves the Francophonie summit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Sunday. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

LYSIANE GAGNON

French theatre of the absurd Add to ...

Whenever the Parti Québécois is in office, the meetings of la Francophonie are bound to become the theatre of a power play between Quebec and Ottawa.

This time, though, the first face-to-face meeting between Premier Pauline Marois and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, went smoothly – it was “almost warm,” quipped Ms. Marois – and they agreed that both governments should respect the constitutional boundaries. This fits well with Mr. Harper’s “decentralist” philosophy, while it’s the only attitude Ms. Marois can adopt as head of a minority government.

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Both leaders ostentatiously kept their distance from the Francophonie host, Congolese President Joseph Kabila (who was re-elected at the end of 2011 amid allegations of fraud and violence) and called for respect of human rights.

Wisely, Ms. Marois sided with Mr. Harper in refusing to support French President François Hollande’s push for awarding Africa a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council – an idea that would make the council even less functional than it is now. Canada didn’t have to sign on to the agenda of Mr. Hollande, who assiduously courts France’s former colonies in Africa to protect his country’s lucrative economic interests against the formidable competition of the Chinese, who are investing massively on the continent. (Later, though, in a speech in Paris, Ms. Marois criticized Mr. Harper’s foreign policy.)

There had been a great deal of pressure from human-rights groups to cancel the Kinshasa summit, an event that only added to the Francophonie’s deplorable reputation as an organization largely made up of authoritarian, if not totalitarian, regimes. But the Francophonie doesn’t have much choice: Nowadays, most francophones live in Africa (although, even in those countries where it’s the official language, French is mostly used by the elites), and Congo, with its 70 million citizens, is one of the largest of the organization’s 56 member states and governments and 19 observers.

In any case, the decision to keep the summit in Congo was not a bad one: It shed light on the plight of the dissidents, and it provided visibility and encouragement for Congo’s democratic opposition.

Still, this (very modest) public relations success can’t erase the fundamental flaws of the Francophonie, which, contrary to its name, regroups a majority of countries where French is hardly spoken.

Why on earth are Albania, Austria, Cyprus, Thailand, Ukraine and Ghana in the Francophonie? And there are many more French speakers in Spain or Italy than in Serbia, Egypt or Estonia. The organization also includes former French colonies such as Vietnam, where the rare French speakers are now aging professionals. Even in Romania, which has a Latin-based language, one hears more English than French on the streets of Bucharest.

On the other hand, Algeria, where French is still widely spoken, and Israel, where a quarter of the population has French as a mother tongue, are not members. The Francophonie is a weird club where entry rights are driven by arbitrary rules.

The most ludicrous case is Rwanda, a former French-speaking Belgian colony that’s been turned into an officially English-speaking country but is still a full-fledged member of the Francophonie. And the newest member is Qatar, which is anything but a francophone country.

What’s the purpose of an organization that makes such a mockery of French? This beautiful language definitely deserves better.

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