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How Michaëlle Jean will re-energize la Francophonie

Allan Rock is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ottawa

There are many reasons for Canadians to rejoice at the election of Michaëlle Jean as the next Secretary-General of la Francophonie. We are, of course, extremely proud that a Canadian will now lead such an important international organization. Those of us at the University of Ottawa are especially thrilled that our chancellor has been chosen for such a prominent role. That she is the first non-African and the first woman to occupy that office makes the event historic.

But perhaps the most important reason for celebration is that Ms. Jean's exceptional personal qualities will now be brought to bear as the International Organization of La Francophonie (IOF) confronts the immense challenges on its agenda.

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For all its weaknesses and failings, the IOF remains a key global player. Its 57 member states and 20 "observer" countries account for a total population of more than 375 million Francophones living on four continents. And under the quietly effective leadership of Adou Diouf these past 10 years, the IOF has become increasingly active in the resolution of disputes among its sometimes fractious members. Mr. Diouf's modest, deft and mostly unheralded diplomacy has averted or resolved a number of differences that might otherwise have led to major conflicts. Ms. Jean is well-positioned to build upon this legacy, and to enlarge the IOF's emerging role as a forum for mediation and a source of "good offices" when circumstances require them.

While the list of pressing issues that await Ms. Jean is a long one, there are three matters in particular that will require her early and focused attention.

The first is the promotion of good governance and the protection of human rights among IOF member states. Here, Ms. Jean's deep commitment is beyond dispute. And her talent for persuasion and her reputation for persistence will be essential to progress. As governor-general and as UNESCO's special representative for Haiti, she has demonstrated both. Especially in her role in Haiti, she brought disparate interests to the table and forged common ground where others thought it impossible. She will now face her sternest test, but will no doubt bring to the task her characteristic energy and creativeness.

The second challenge involves economic development. The IOF can and should become a more effective instrument for growth among its members, particularly those in Africa. During her campaign for the office, Ms. Jean spoke often about ways in which the IOF can help put in place the building blocks: greater access to education; the improvement of infrastructure; and the opening of new and freer markets. The IOF can be a constructive influence towards the achievement of these crucial objectives.

Finally, there is the plight of women. The widespread and systemic exclusion of women from positions of authority and the appalling incidence of violence and abuse constitute a shameful record that must be reversed. Her very election is an encouraging if symbolic message that the IOF is prepared to address these conditions. This challenge is of course related to the two others: how can stable and prosperous societies be built upon practices that devalue and exclude one half of the population? Ms. Jean has a remarkable opportunity to lead a break with the past and to preside over a new beginning.

There was, among delegates to the IOF Congress in Senegal this past weekend, a palpable sense of excitement and optimism. Much of that new spirit derived from the sense that the choice of Ms. Jean as its new leader represents a major stride forward for an organization too often known for its caution and low expectations. It is for Ms. Jean a source of both strength and peril that those expectations have now been raised. As Canadians, and as members of the IOF, we unite in celebrating Ms. Jean's achievement and in wishing her well in the difficult and important task to which she now turns.

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