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Former Governor General Michaelle Jean smiles after being chosen as the new Secretary-General of la Francophonie during the Francophonie Summit in Dakar, Senegal on Nov. 30.The Canadian Press

Former governor-general Michaëlle Jean will become the next secretary-general for la Francophonie, bringing a renewed focus on economic development to an organization often preoccupied with addressing violent conflicts in its member states.

Ms. Jean, 57, became the first woman to take the organization's helm after an election process on Sunday. Backed by Canada, Quebec and New Brunswick, she was named to the position by consensus after four other candidates vying for the top job bowed out. Quebec and New Brunswick have status as participating governments at la Francophonie.

The federal government expressed particular support for Ms. Jean's position on making economic development a more significant part of the organization's mandate. Ottawa has placed trade and commerce at the centre of its diplomatic relations with other countries and sees economic development as an key part of its foreign-aid strategy.

Speaking at a news conference on Sunday, Ms. Jean said an economic strategy adopted at the Francophonie summit over the weekend represents hope and the possibility that the organization will gain a new relevance.

"You know, countries, peoples and civilizations came together by doing business together," she said. "… I believe that this magnificent project is to do that within la Francophonie, [to] use this very rich language and make it an extraordinary space to move forward together for the development of the economies of our countries."

The Conservative government publicly threw its support behind Ms. Jean's bid in the months leading up to the election, talking her up in meetings with other leaders and hiring a diplomatic adviser to assist her. Ottawa also covered the cost of a series of visits she took to Asia, Europe and Africa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Sunday that Ms. Jean, who becomes the first woman to lead la Francophonie, will help revitalize the organization.

"Ms. Jean is the ideal person to promote French and the values of the organization," Mr. Harper said in a statement. "She will embody the renewal and modernity that la Francophonie of the 21st century needs, and will listen to heads of state and government and their citizens."

Mr. Harper attended the summit in Dakar, Senegal, with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and New Brunswick's Brian Gallant. Canada is the second-largest contributor to la Francophonie.

Justin Massie, a professor of political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said the outgoing secretary-general of la Francophonie, former Senegalese president Abdou Diouf, was widely recognized for his efforts to address conflicts and crises.

While there has been growing interest in increasing the focus on economic issues at la Francophonie in recent years, he said the idea of how the organization might promote development is still taking shape.

"It's quite new, and I think it's the focus of Michaëlle Jean's tenure or mandate. I think it's part of what the government was trying to promote with her candidacy and with her selection," he said in an interview on Sunday. "I guess it's a testament that la Francophonie will take that orientation over the next four years."

Christian Paradis, Canada's minister for international development and la Francophonie, said in an interview ahead of the election that he believes the push for a greater economic focus could be a "game changer" for la Francophonie. "I think the organization is modern, and they're pertinent, and it's credible," Mr. Paradis said. "But we can work beyond the language and the culture. We can work, also, with the economy."

The election process lasted longer than expected on Sunday. As the hours passed, some delegations feared the matter could end up going to a vote – an unprecedented move for an organization that has always chosen its leaders through consensus. During the final stretch of the campaign, the Canadian delegation pushed the notion that it would be better to come to a consensus on Ms. Jean's candidacy – rather than risk the fractious process of holding a vote, according to a source familiar with the campaign.

A former journalist, Ms. Jean served as Canada's governor-general from 2005 to 2010. She has since served as UNESCO special envoy to Haiti and chancellor of the University of Ottawa. Ms. Jean was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and her family immigrated to Canada in 1968 to escape the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Her win means the current administrator of la Francophonie, Canadian Clément Duhaime, will likely step down to make way for an African representative among the organization's leadership.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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