TUNIS: Leaders of French-speaking countries gathered on Saturday on a Tunisian island to discuss debt relief, migration, food and energy shortages, with a soaring cost of living across Africa, Europe and the Middle East due to war in Ukraine as the backdrop.
French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the presidents of six African nations were attending the 18th annual meeting of the 88-member International Organization of Francophonie, which promotes relations among nations that use French as their primary language.
European Council President Charles Michel also was in Tunisia for the two-day summit, the organization’s first gathering in three years following pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Louise Mushikiwabo, the group’s secretary-general and Rwanda’s former foreign minister, said the participants plan to issue a final declaration on major political, social and economic issues after the summit ends on Sunday.
They will also focus on “ways to boost the use of the French language around Europe and in international institutions as its use declines compared to English,” Mushikiwabo said.
The bloc has been criticized for failing to use its clout to resolve crises. President Macron said the International Organization of Francophonie should be “a space of resistance and reconquest” and called for it to reclaim its role.
Macron noted that in North Africa the use of French has declined over the past few decades. “English is a new common language that people have accepted,” he said. But, he added, “(French) is the universal language of the African continent.”
The presidents of Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Mauritania, Niger, Burundi and Rwanda are representing more than 320 million French-speaking people across the African continent, including Tunisia, organizers said.
The president of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, did not attend the summit amid escalating tensions with neighboring Rwanda, President Paul Kagame was in Djerba.
The Congolese government tweeted Saturday that Tshisekedi stayed away to condemn “Rwandan aggression.”
Congolese Prime Minister Sama Lukonde traveled to Tunisia in the president’s place, the government said. Lukonde refused to appear in the family photo during the opening session because of Kagame’s presence. Congolese authorities accuse Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels, which Rwanda denies. Violence by armed groups in eastern Congo has forced hundreds to flee over the past few months, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the two French-speaking African nations.
The summit and a two-day meeting of the organization’s economic forum next week are taking place amid tight security.
Tunisia has been in the grip of a political and economic crisis.
In preparation for the international meetings, authorities also gave Djerba a makeover, building new roads and improving infrastructure around the island that is a major tourist hub and home to several historical sites, including one of Africa’s oldest synagogues.
The meetings are expected to boost the standing of Tunisian President Kais Saied.
Last month, the Tunisian government reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a $1.9 billion loan that is designed to ease the country’s protracted budget crisis and calm the simmering discontent over soaring food and energy shortages.