YEREVAN—For two days in Armenia’s capital, heads of state and representatives from 84 countries discussed significant economic, cultural and political concerns common throughout the francophone sphere under the motto “Vivre ensemble” (Live together). The 17th Francophonie Summit, taking place only months after the peaceful ‘Velvet Revolution’ propelled Nikol Pashinyan to the Prime Minister’s office, has been hailed as a smashing success by both Armenian and foreign diplomats. Among the more important outcomes were the nomination of Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo as the OIF’s new Secretary-General, as well as the entry of four new members into the organization. The world leaders assembled in Yerevan also adopted resolutions on the promotion of human rights, education, cultural exchange and a strategy for the strengthening of gender equality within the Francophonie.
The Summit took place at a crucial historical moment for both Armenia and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). Fifty-four heads of state gathered in Yerevan’s Karen Demirchyan Hall to tackle pressing issues for the organization. With 29 of the organization’s 54 member states being former French and Belgian colonies in Africa containing the largest concentration of the world’s French-speakers, the developments on that continent took center stage throughout the two-day deliberation.
Delegates shared concerns about the spread of Islamic radicalization, authoritarianism and corruption across Africa. The leadership agreed that if Africa is to be the future of the Francophonie, serious work must be done to promote good governance, the rule of law, meaningful education and entrepreneurship on the continent. Outgoing Secretary-General Michaëlle Jean, who had spent most of her term promoting gender equality, highlighted the need for educating young girls as the key to escape the cycle of poverty.
Down at the Village de la Francophonie, a veritable town of little tents for each member-state set up under the shadow of the Opera House, Douglas Mbiandou presented his solution to chronic poverty in Africa. A software engineer by trade, he and fellow members of the African Diaspora in Paris have set up 10000codeurs.com, a coaching network with the ambitious goal of training ten thousand computer programmers for the job market by the year 2025.
“Every African thinks that the only escape from poverty is to swim to Europe,” said Mbiandou. In his view, that’s because most young Africans do not receive exposure to the opportunities of the digital economy. “Every African parent tells their child to be the best doctor, best lawyer or best teacher. Why doesn’t anyone push their son to be the best full stack developer or database administrator?” He insists that this organization has already helped dozens of young people find high paying tech jobs in Africa.
Back at the Demirchyan complex, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed a hall full of diplomats and politicians. “The French language may come from France, but it no longer belongs to France. It belongs to all of us,” he tells the cheering crowd. Turning to the Armenian Prime Minister, he says “In Paris, Marseille or Lyon, uttering the name ‘Armenia’ is to touch a cord of national sensibility.” Of the late Charles Aznavour, whom many have credited with making this Summit a reality, he said, “The singer who represented francophone culture across the planet, we ALL knew to be Armenian.” In his address, Macron also warned of creeping authoritarianism, radicalization and other threats to the democratic order, proposing the Francophonie as an optimal forum to tackle these issues.
For delegates, the most crucial part of the Summit is the nomination of a new Secretary General. In an attempt to shed the perception of being a post-colonial mechanism for France to cling onto international relevance, the organization fundamentally transformed itself, over time, into a vehicle for the transfer of knowledge, assistance and subsidies from northern, developed member-states, such as France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada to the mostly-African South.
For this reason, the OIF has traditionally selected an African to front the French-speaking body. The election in 2015 of Michaëlle Jean, the first-ever non-African Secretary-General, was presented as a compromise. A female black-Haitian refugee who rose to become Canada’s Governor General, her inspiring story was expected to bridge the gap between the affluent Northern members and Africa. Despite this, her tenure has been rocked by allegations of frivolous spending and mismanagement of funds.
Since the OIF chooses its Secretary-General through consensus, not a vote, Jean’s hopes for reelection were dashed when France elected to side with some other African countries to support the nomination of Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. This nomination didn’t come without controversy, however. The choice of a new Secretary-General from a country which just recently replaced French with English as the language of instruction in its schools reflects a larger identity crisis at the heart of the organization.
The official accessions of Ireland, the United Arab Emirates and Malta at the summit—three countries with virtually no historical or linguistic ties to French—have led to concerns that the OIF may be sacrificing its identity as a club of French-speaking nations for the sake of heightened global clout.
Mrs. Mushikiwabo, freshly-appointed as Secretary-General laid out her vision for an OIF built on a multilateral approach to problem-solving rather than the imposition of a “singular truth” by European and North American members. Though France, Switzerland and Belgium publicly endorsed this new direction, it also raised critical questions about the commonality of values espoused by an international organization which lumps democratic states with dictatorships.
This clash of visions as to the future of Francophonie was laid bare over a controversial proposal to extend membership to Saudi Arabia, a theocratic regime with no ties to French culture, and policies in flagrant opposition to the values of the OIF.
Back at the Village, educators, diplomats, librarians and business people from five continents visited the tents set up for all the countries represented at the forum. Others attended panel discussions and presentations. At the New Brunswick tent, a Canadian province containing less than 200 Armenians, the clerk admitted to The Armenian Weekly that, not knowing what to expect, he was blown away by Armenia’s hospitality and rich culture.
The TUMO booth was particularly busy. The award-winning educational center which opened its doors in Armenia in 2008 may be Armenia’s most tangible contribution to the Francophonie. Specializing in providing teenagers with the right skills in graphic design, computer science and robotics, its unique educational approach is expected serve as an excellent tool in the OIF’s mission to promote digital literacy across its membership. TUMO has already opened its first center outside Armenia in Paris and will open two more in fellow-francophonie members Lebanon and Albania very soon.
In the wake of a turbulent political episode for the Armenian Prime Minister, the Summit was nonetheless hailed as a success for Armenia by visiting dignitaries. Pairing his attendance to the OIF summit with an official working visit to Yerevan, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also launched the Arnold Chan Initiative for Democracy in Armenia. He met with his Armenian counterpart and discussed numerous issues from the deepening of trade relations to the possible establishment of a Canadian embassy in Yerevan. Macron similarly took the opportunity to promote business ties between France and Armenia. For Yerevan, the summit also came as an opportunity to welcome the mayors of the Association des Maires Francophones, of which Yerevan is a member.
With the last foreign dignitary taking off from Zvartnots Airport, Armenia prepares to assume the Presidency of the OIF until 2020.