Speaking with one tongue

MICHAEL ROSE September 14 1987

Speaking with one tongue

MICHAEL ROSE September 14 1987

Speaking with one tongue


All the trappings were in place: long motorcades carrying dignitaries, elaborate official ceremonies, solemn deliberations and costly security measures involving hundreds of armed police and helicopters clattering overhead. But as delegates to last week’s summit of 37 francophone nations headed home from their threeday encounter in Quebec City, the ultimate significance of the event and the future of the fledgling group remained unclear. Even the host, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, felt obliged to warn against unrealistic expectations. Said Mulroney on the eve of the summit: “No miracles will be achieved here.”

The summit participants—a diverse group running the gamut from parliamentary democracies, including Canada, to dictatorships like Zaire—yielded the usual array of resolutions on international political and economic issues. But the outward show of political maturity masked some troubling questions. Among them: whether this or

any other summit, including the Commonwealth meeting scheduled for next month in Vancouver, could have any real impact on world affairs.

At the same time, observers questioned the credibility of the summit’s pious condemnation of apartheid in South Africa in the light of well-documented human rights abuses in more than half of its member countries. An even more fundamental question was whether the use of the French language was enough to unite in any lasting way a group of nations with widely divergent traditions and concerns.

In Quebec City, France’s head of state, François Mitterrand, sat at the same table as Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, delegates from Vietnam, Egypt and Haiti, and black leaders in traditional African garb. Some participants, including Mary Eugenia Charles, prime minister of the Caribbean nation of Dominica, and Premier Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick, spoke little French and could not participate easily in the discussions. Regions sending nonparticipating observ-

ers—the American states of New Hampshire and Louisiana, as well as Valle d’Aosta, a French-speaking region of northern Italy—underlined the challenge of forging a genuine new political club with language as the common denominator. Indeed, in some countries, including Vietnam and Egypt, French is used infrequently and only by a small elite.

Canadian organizers sought to minimize those differences and to ensure that La Francophonie, as the organization is called, took firm stands on pressing international issues. But the fragile unity of the group was threatened during the first full day of closeddoor deliberations when Canada refused to endorse a resolution affirming the principle of self-determination for the Palestinians. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that Canada could not abandon its long-standing objection to the phrase, even though Canada accepted the notion of an eventual homeland for the Palestinian people. The disagreement, Clark insisted, “did not affect the very good spirit

that developed” in the summit meeting. And the group did manage to agree on the need for an international conference on the Middle East, a consensus that the first francophone summit in Paris last year failed to reach.

The summiteers had less difficulty agreeing on a resolution condemning South Africa’s apartheid regime and calling for further, unspecified measures to be taken against Pretoria. The word “measures” itself was a compromise, chosen because some countries would not agree to use the much stronger “sanctions.” Indeed, although Canadian officials saw the summit as a lever to increase pressure on South Africa, the Quebec City resolution on apartheid went little further than one adopted 18 months earlier in Paris.

Organizers decided in the months preceding the summit to steer clear of issues that could destroy the new club. As a result, human rights were not on the formal agenda. And a statement of fundamental principles called the Declaration of Solidarity, released at the end of the summit, made no mention of the issue. But a report compiled by Amnesty International before the meeting cited serious human rights abuses in a majority of francophone nations and noted the “thousands of our brothers and sisters who suffer in French for their freedom of opinion.” Among the offending nations: Burundi, whose president, JeanBaptiste Bagaza, was ousted in a military coup during his visit to Quebec City (see box).

Claiming that La Francophonie was simply too young to tackle the human rights problem in a formal way, Clark said, “We are finding our legs, and we have to find our legs around those questions where it’s going to be possible to get agreement.” That did not satisfy such critics as Roger Sossouhounto, who joined an Amnesty vigil to protest human rights abuses in a number of summit nations. Said Sossouhounto, 32, imprisoned for five years for speaking out against the military regime of the West African country of Benin: “Canada must have the courage to raise the problem. Canada could make a big difference.”

Still, Mulroney referred to the issue in his opening speech at Quebec City’s Grand Théâtre. Said the Prime Minister, in a carefully drafted line: “The promotion of human rights should not be sacrificed to the imperatives of development. That being said, the expansion of these rights is also achieved by establishing an appropiate economic environment.” But External Affairs officials said privately that they were not unhappy when several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the theatre to protest human rights abuses. Said one official: “Every leader who went through that door could see how important the issue

is to Canadians and that our police weren’t clubbing the people who said so.”

But Third World members likely found more pertinent Ottawa’s announcement that it was cancelling $325 million in outstanding government loans to seven francophone countries. In May Canada announced a moratorium on repayment of such loans from several African nations, English and French. Last week that moratorium was transformed into outright debt forgiveness. The major beneficiaries: Cameroon ($144 million), Ivory Coast ($80 million) and Zaïre ($31 million). A similar forgiveness program for less-developed Commonwealth countries is expected to be announced during the Vancouver summit. The Quebec City summit also yielded new spending by Canada, France and other developed nations on agricultural, energy and communications projects. Canada’s contribution to French-speaking Africa totalled $17 million.

One of Canada’s major aims in supporting La Francophonie was to give itself another forum to make its foreign policy presence known, as well as to indicate to the world the country’s bilin-

gual character. As a result, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa played a prominent role. At last year’s summit federal officials were angry when Bourassa intervened in a debate on economic issues without asking Mulroney’s permission. This time Bourassa even chaired a session on aid and co-operation.

As the summit ended, Canadian officials said that they were convinced that the new group would evolve in subsequent meetings—the next is to be in Senegal in 1989—into a major player in world affairs. One new initiative: the Francophonie Games, an athletic competition tentatively scheduled for Morocco in 1989. Declared Canada’s ambassador to France, Lucien Bouchard: “This newborn conference is less weak, or stronger, than it was before, because it has made some proof of its creativity and its capacity to adopt strong measures concerning delicate issues.” For Canada, as for other member nations, the hope is that those measures will be taken seriously outside of La Francophonie.



Quebec City

Catching the early plane

Summit meetings give national leaders a chance to perform before an international audience—but they can also present opportunities for enemies back home. Col. JeanBaptiste Bagaza came to last week’s summit of La Francophonie in Quebec City as leader of the povertystricken central African nation of Burundi. But on the second day of the meeting Bagaza abruptly left Canada after being deposed as president, head of Burundi’s ruling party and chief of the armed forces.

Bagaza’s departure created a brief sensation in Quebec City. Summit officials were clearly embarrassed and avoided comment for hours.

Finally, Canada’s ambassador to France, Lucien Bouchard, said that he had raised the matter with Burundi’s foreign minister, Egide Nkuriyingoma, who claimed that Bagaza, 41, had planned in advance to leave on Thursday morning. Later External Affairs Minister Joe Clark declared that Canada was

“maintaining our relations with the government of the day” in Burundi.

Even before the coup, Burundi had been the focus of some unwelcome attention at the summit. It was one of several nations in La Francophonie criticized by protesters who joined a 24-hour vigil against human rights violations. Amnesty International accused Bagaza’s government of detaining critics without trial and persecuting religious groups. An external affairs department official told Maclean's that the Burundi delegation expressed outrage that Canada had allowed the protest to take place.

After leaving Quebec City, Bagaza rushed homeward via Paris. But the new military rulers of Burundi closed the country’s airport. Neighboring Rwanda refused him entry, so after a brief stop in Kenya he returned to Paris. At week’s end, Bagaza, who took power in his own coup in 1976, was still searching for a country that would welcome him.