Skip to main content

Michaelle Jean says that Prime Minister Stephen Harper called her the ‘perfect’ person to head the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It's 6 p.m. when a former Governor-General and a phalanx of aides dash into a cafe next to the Sorbonne. At nearby tables, Parisians are nursing their aperitifs, but Michaëlle Jean orders green tea. It might as well be espresso. Within seconds, she launches into a full-throttle defence of the international organization representing the Francophonie and why she should lead it.

She speaks in run-on sentences, saying that Stephen Harper told her she would be "perfect" for the job, that African presidents have urged her to jump into the fray and that only "discerning diplomacy" will allow her – and by the same token Canada – to enlist their support.

Since her candidacy was announced in June, Ms. Jean has been campaigning with the hope of becoming secretary-general of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), the Paris-based grouping of 57 states, of which Canada, Quebec and New Brunswick are members. In past months, she has visited 11 countries, from Benin to Belgium, hobnobbing with heads of state, but also meeting with youth and women's groups.

"I don't arrive in a country begging for votes," she says, explaining that her main preoccupation is to listen. "One cannot aspire to represent the Francophonie without knowing what member states want." She is hopeful that her efforts will pay off when heads of government, taking part in the OIF summit at the end of November in Dakar, designate by consensus its new chief.

Her chances are good, according to observers. "I have reason to believe that Mr. Harper would not have asked her to run for the job if he wasn't convinced she could win," remarks Jean-Louis Roy, a former Canadian secretary-general of the Francophonie. Ms. Jean also enjoys the backing of Haiti, her native land.

For Ms. Jean, showing one's face all over the world is of the essence. "The last time I campaigned for the job, I went to 35 countries, an absurd number," Mr. Roy recalled in a phone interview from Montreal.

On the campaign trail, Ms. Jean is helped by former ambassador Jacques Bilodeau, long Canada's Francophonie summit sherpa, and Louis Hamann, a de facto spokesman based at the Quebec General Delegation in Paris. A network of Canadian embassies and Quebec delegations are lending a helping hand – a not-so-common example of federal-provincial teamwork on an international scale, or as Ms. Jean puts it, "an extraordinary synergy."

Airfare is usually picked up by the Foreign Affairs Department, although Ms. Jean still travels at times as University of Ottawa chancellor. On a recent trip to Paris her plane ticket was paid by a University of Paris body known as "Consortium Sorbonne Universités" because Ms. Jean sits on its strategic orientation committee.

Ms. Jean, the current UNESCO special envoy to Haiti, has made some inroads in Africa, which wields considerable influence at the OIF. She is seen as a distinguished member of the African diaspora. "We were proud to see her become Governor-General of Canada. We see her like our daughter," says Filippe Savadogo, a former Burkina Faso minister and ambassador. Le Potentiel, a Kinshasa newspaper, is more blunt: "Ms. Jean's candidacy is not only Canadian, it is also African."

African presidents, including Macky Sall of Senegal, Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast and Paul Biya of Cameroon, have encouraged her to run for the job, Ms. Jean confides. Yet her main rivals are also from Africa. Former Burundi president Pierre Buyoya declared his candidacy in April. He has mediated in African conflicts, including Mali, but came to power in a military coup – twice. He is far from a shoo-in.

Ms. Jean's most serious adversary is perhaps Mauritius Foreign Minister Jean Claude de l'Estrac, the current secretary-general of the Indian Ocean Commission, a regional bloc made up of four island nations and France (via Réunion island, a French department). He is campaigning actively, courteously dismissive of the woman who used to sit in for the Queen in Canada. When Radio France Internationale (RFI) asked Mr. de l'Estrac what differentiated him from Ms. Jean, he quipped: "L'expérience."

"Ms. Jean has a strong background in international affairs, development and current global issues," counters Francophonie Minister Christian Paradis. "She is perfectly well qualified and capable of … taking charge of the Francophonie in the 21st century."

Campaigning is a politically fraught exercise. When Ms. Jean caught up with Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno in September, a new penal code criminalizing homosexuality had just been made public. Ms. Jean says she did not raise the issue. Nor did she address Rwanda's rights record when she met with President Paul Kagame on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September – only days before the U.S. expressed its "deep concern" about dozens of corpses that washed up this summer in a lake bordering Rwanda and Burundi.

Ms. Jean says that she does not "meddle" in the affairs of foreign nations, that she can only call attention to rights provisions of the OIF charter, support local rights defenders and repeat that the rule of law is good for business. "Faced with this minefield, you can either turn your back [on the problems] or go forward with dialogue," she explained, an approach she describes as diplomatie fine ("discerning diplomacy").

OIF secretary-generals have tended to be elder statesman, including former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Ms. Jean is the first woman to run for the job and, at 57, she is also the youngest. Her supporters argue the organization would benefit from a high-profile fund-raiser at a time when the OIF is hoping to replenish its coffers.

In this race, the role of France is unclear. Former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë reportedly wanted the job, but it's virtually impossible for a citizen of France, the former colonial master, to become OIF head. Citing "generally well-informed sources," the RFI website reports that "France could favour the Canadian candidacy."