Pursuing a dream at a Gallic summit

MICHAEL ROSE February 24 1986

Pursuing a dream at a Gallic summit

MICHAEL ROSE February 24 1986

Pursuing a dream at a Gallic summit

It was a dream first actively promoted by Senegal’s poetpresident Léopold Senghor and by Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba. In the early 1960s the two African leaders, along with King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and a small coterie of Frenchspeaking intellectuals, envisaged a grouping of the world’s francophone people that would safeguard the global future of French —and serve as a cultural and political counterpoint to the worldwide influence of the English-speaking Commonwealth and the United States. Almost a quarter of a century later,

this week’s historic first summit meeting in Paris of leaders and envoys of 41 French-speaking governments from around the world—including Canada and Quebec —is testimony to both the durability of the concept of “la Francophonie” and the serious difficulties that accompanied its birth. Most leaders, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, travelled to Paris with few illusions that the fledgling political association could take wing on words alone. Declared Mulroney, on the eve of his departure: “This community will not be built by mere lofty praise of the greatness of the French language.”

From the outset, the task of transforming la Francophonie from a poet’s vision into a viable political force has been marked by apathy and bickering. Senghor himself, now retired at 79, discovered that few leaders shared his enthusiasm for la Francophonie, a term coined by a French geographer in 1880 and revived by Senghor in 1962 to describe a French-speaking commonwealth. When support for the idea began to build, hesitation on the part of France—and a 15-year struggle between Ottawa and Quebec over the province’s participation —delayed further progress.

But the diversity of interests represented at the three-day Paris summit may prove to be an even larger obstacle to a lasting association. Unlike the 49 Commonwealth countries, linked by history with the British Empire and its parliamentary institutions, the peoples who regularly use the French language are as far apart —culturally, politically and geographically—as Haiti and Egypt, Canada and Vietnam. At the same time, the future of French and the viability of la Francophonie face a challenge in the steady rise of English—the world’s second most widely spoken language after Chinese— as the international means of discourse in high-technology communications and computer software.

Still, organizers of the Paris summit planned an ambitious series of closed meetings this week to discuss the world political and economic situation, North-South issues, co-operation among francophone nations— and the future of the French language in a high-technology world. Canada and Quebec, along with France, Senegal and Tunisia, played key roles in planning the summit and developing its format and agenda. In fact, it was not until November, 1985, when the Conservative government in Ottawa reached agreement with the then-Parti Québécois government in Quebec on the province’s participation that France agreed to hold the summit at all.

The federal-provincial deadlock ended with a compromise forged last fall by negotiators for Mulroney and outgoing PQ premier René Lévesque. Under the terms of that accord, Quebec participates as an “interested observer” in summit discussions of international politics, but may intervene—with federal permission—on economic issues seen to affect its interests. By agreement, Quebec officials also sit alongside federal delegates in plenary sessions, identify themselves as “Canada-Quebec” and

display the provincial flag. The formula was subsequently extended to include officially bilingual New Brunswick and endorsed by Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa, who took power from the PQ in December. Manitoba and Ontario decided to send nonparticipating observers.

Meanwhile, a delicate protocol problem over speaking order was resolved last week. Mulroney, who was staying after the summit for a two-day

official visit to France, was scheduled to speak for Canada at the formal opening session at the historic palace of Versailles, outside Paris. Bourassa arranged to address the closing session. Mulroney also said that if Bourassa or New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield wanted to speak at other times, “all they will have to do is nudge me and ask me.” Declared a senior federal official: “After all the years of bickering between Lévesque and the Trudeau Liberals over Quebec’s participation, Mulroney’s attitude was a breath of fresh air.”

Trudeau, wary throughout the 1970s of fuelling “indépendantiste” fervor in Quebec, had consistently rejected provincial demands for de facto national status in any francophone meeting. For its part, France was equally adamant that no summit would be held without Quebec. As a result, plans for a summit fell through on two occasions during the Trudeau era.

In 1979 Ottawa and Quebec could not even agree on who should be sent to a preparatory meeting of foreign ministers called by Senghor in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. In 1983 similar disputes led to the collapse of a near deal in which Trudeau alone would have repre-

sented Canada on international issues. Lévesque would have attended only discussions within provincial jurisdiction. Declared former Quebec intergovernmental affairs minister Claude Morin: “It was an occasion for Trudeau to eliminate the beginnings of an international stature for Quebec. It became a real obsession.”

Mulroney, whose 1984 election promises included a commitment to “national reconciliation,” was determined that

Quebec and Canada should participate together in the summit. When French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius visited Ottawa in November, 1984, Mulroney declared that he accepted “the legitimacy of privileged, direct relations be-

tween Paris and Quebec.” Not long after,

Mulroney and Lévesque appointed senior staffers to find a formula for Quebec’s participation.

One key aide was Lucien Bouchard, a university friend of Mulroney’s and a former senior Quebec labor relations adviser.

Said Bouchard, Canada’s newly appointed ambassador to France: “I don’t think people realize the enormous difficulties posed by those negotiations.”

The approval of the summit created a series of new problems for its organizers. Several Frenchspeaking countries in Africa at first opposed enlarging the scope of the meeting beyond economic co-operation issues and a discussion of the French language. Algeria decided not to attend,

citing a desire to remain politically nonaligned in international affairs. Initially, Canadian diplomatic sources told Maclean's, France also appeared ready to address only aid, development and cultural issues. But Canadian External Relations Minister Monique Vézina, the minister responsible for the summit, pressed for what one insider described as “a less nostalgic, more modern” agenda, similar to those drawn up for Commonwealth meetings. De-

dared Bouchard: “Peace and world economic development are too important to be discussed only in English, Russian or Japanese.” As a result, a quarter of the summit’s sessions were to be devoted to such issues.

Canadian officials also pressed to ensure that the summit concluded with concrete projects and proposals. Said Mulroney: “La Francophonie will be a doer of deeds, or it will be nothing.” Indeed, Mulroney planned to announce at the summit a $10-million, five-year Canadian aid program to fight childhood disease in developing francophone nations —the counterpart of a similar $25million contribution announced at last

October’s Commonwealth conference in Nassau, Bahamas. For Canada, which supported Quebec’s desire to hold the next francophone summit in Quebec City, the development of a new political association would put the country in a unique international position. As a

member of both the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, Canada could claim a privileged relationship with more than half the world’s nations, giving Mulroney a special role as a potential mediator between the two organizations.

For the host, President François Mitterrand, the summit offered an important political opportunity—just one month before critical legislative elections in France—to emphasize his role as the architect of French foreign policy. But Canadian diplomatic sources said that France, at first reluctant to relinquish its exclusive relationship with former colonies in Africa, has now concluded that it should no longer be the developed country to which those cash-hungry nations look first for foreign aid.

Around the world, French is spoken by more than 110 million people in 40 countries on five continents. But it ranks only 12th globally after, among others, Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindustani, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese and German. It is the mother tongue and only official language in just eight nations but is the shared official language or the language of instruction in more than two dozen others, primarily in Africa. Historically, French was the main language of world diplomacy, reaching its peak of influence in the 19th century when it was used in the royal courts of Germany, Russia and Italy.

Despite the decline in the importance of its language, France has promoted it around the world. An army of more than 20,000 government-financed teachers from France attempt to nurture French in 155 countries—at a cost to Paris last year of about $750 million. In addition, the French government has set up a five-year plan to extend the range of Radio France and try to match the influence of the English-language BBC World Service.

Among the issues on the Paris summit agenda, two took on a special urgency. Most of the world’s major computer data banks now store information in English only, and little of the software being developed for the new generation of computers is in French. Mitterrand said recently that French must adapt to new technology. Said Bouchard: “If we want to fight against the invasion of English terms in computer language, it is not enough to say we want our place—we must take our place.” More than anything else, the response of summit members to that challenge will determine the future of French in the 21st century.