French-speaking bloc starts Tunisia summit focused on economy

The world's French-speaking countries gathered in Tunisia on Saturday for talks focused on economic cooperation, more than a year after President Kais Saied began an internationally criticised power grab.

While the two-day meeting and an associated economic forum will officially focus on technology and development, it is also an opportunity for Western and African leaders to discuss issues like Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the International Organisation of Francophonie (IOF) should be "a space of resistance and reconquest" and called for it to reclaim its role.

The bloc has been criticised for failing to use its clout to resolve crises.

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."

Around 30 heads of state and government, also including Senegalese President Macky Sall and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are at the summit on the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba.

Many African countries have decried what they see as a lack of international solidarity in the face of crises on their continent, in sharp contrast with European nations' swift support for Kyiv.

The summit coincides with the final stage of UN climate talks in Egypt.

It also comes just days after leaders of the G20, which groups major developed and emerging economies, met in Indonesia for talks dominated by the war in Ukraine, which is an OIF observer state.

Normally held every two years, the meeting was postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was delayed again last year after Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament, later dissolving the legislature entirely.

French political researcher Vincent Geisser said hosting the summit is a success for Saied, who welcomed a string of leaders on a red carpet Saturday morning.

Geisser said the meeting would help Saied "leave his isolation -- at least temporarily" after Canada, France and other developed nations last year called on Saied to restore "constitutional order".

- Economic cooperation -

The summit will belatedly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the now 88-strong group whose members, such as Armenia and Serbia, are not all French-speaking.

The world's French-speaking community is around 321 million-strong, and is expected to reach 750 million in 2050.

Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo, of Rwanda, said the bloc is "more pertinent than ever" and able to bring added value to "most of the world's problems".

She told AFP she would ask member states to "redouble their efforts" in the face of a decline in the use of French in international organisations.

Mushikiwabo recalled that promoting "peace, democracy and human rights" is also part of the OIF's mission.

Senegalese civil society figure Alioune Tine, however, said the group has shown itself to be "totally powerless in the face of fraudulent elections, third mandates (of African leaders) and military coups" in Mali, Guinea, Chad and Burkina Faso.

Summit coordinator Mohamed Trabelsi told AFP the meeting was "a recognition of the role of Tunisia in the Francophone space, and of its regional and international diplomacy".

It is also an opportunity to "strengthen economic cooperation", Trabelsi said.

But an official from OIF heavyweight Canada said Ottawa wanted to echo "concern" over "democratic participation" following Saied's power grab in the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings more than a decade ago.

Tunisia is confronted by a deep economic crisis which has pushed a growing number of its people to try to reach Europe.

Seeking to draw delegates' attention to the issue, hundreds of protesters tried Friday to highlight the disappearance of 18 Tunisians aboard a boat that set out in September.

Police prevented them from reaching Djerba.