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Michaëlle Jean & La Francophonie (#106)

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Two days ago you may have seen the headlines that Michaëlle Jean , Canada’s former Governor General, became the Secretary-General of La Francophonie on Sunday.

Along with Adrian Clarkson, Michaëlle Jean was one of the best known Governors General of Canada in recent years – and she is someone we will be hearing about for many more years.

I want to mention briefly who she is, what La Francophonie is, and the significance to Canada of her nomination as the head of La Francophonie.

For many years, prior to becoming Governor General, Michaëlle Jean was a reporter and program host on both CBC and Radio-Canada.   She was our Governor General for five years, from 2005 to 2010.  Since 2010, she was UNESCO’s Special Envoy to Haiti as well as the Chancellor of the University of Ottawa.

La Francophonie is a group of nations which have an “affiliation” with French language and culture.  These nations were of the belief that it would be in their interest form a discussion forum with other like-interested countries to promote ideas and various types of cooperation.  When I say “affiliation”, I use the word is rather loosely – since the essence of La Francophonie has been rather fuzzy.  Membership can be as specific as having French as a first or official language, or as general as having a large populations of French speakers, or a past heritage with French affiliations.

There are 57 member states, comprising approximately 1/6th to 1/7th of the world’s population.  Because of the breadth of definitions of what can comprise a member state, La Francophonie includes as wide a variety of member states such as Qatar, Thailand and Armenia, or as obvious a country as Canada, France and Belgium.  Québec and New Brunswick each hold membership status as full states, at a level equal to Canada and France.

It could be said that our most important relationships around the world revolve around a few close-knit poles of influence and groups of friends.   Most countries around the world generally have one, perhaps two – or if they are lucky, three – close-knit poles of influence and groups of friends.  In Canada’s case, because of the nature of our country and of our history, in the widest and most general terms, we probably have somewhere in the neighbourhood of five (which is more than most).  There is also a 6th indirect relationship group which I will also mention.

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Those five + 1 would be

  1. The Commonwealth (a group of 53 countries and ¼ of the world’s population). It includes countries which are among our closest friends and allies (including those with whom Anglophone Canada shares much in common), such as Australia, the UK and New Zealand.
  2. NATO (a group of 28 countries). This is our military alliance, and all 28 nations have pledged to defend each other in the event of any attack (an attack on any one nation is considered an attack on all).
  3. The European Union: Although Canada is not a member of the European Union, Canada has very strong ties to many Union members by virtue of our history, our past and current defense heritage, our new free trade agreement, and our shared cultural heritage.
  4. The United States: The US and Canada remain each other’s primary trading partners, we jointly control NORAD, and our two governments have more back-and-forth dealings than with any other governments.   We also share a common history (born of the same roots), we’re both culturally North American – and we share a continent together.
  5. La Francophonie: Our relationship with individual nations within the organization (such as France) is often much stronger than with La Francophonie itself.   However, member states have adhered to the organization to gain influence, to share common goals, and to build a deeper relationship.  Thus our relationships with member states is greater under the umbrella of La Francophonie than what it would have been without.
  6. This 6th relationship is an indirect one, but also an important one. We could go so far as to say that at individual level, Canada is forging relationships with other major countries around the world through our newer heritage communities.  Chinese immigrants (1.5 to 2 million Canadians) are conducting massive amounts of business and forging enormous networks between Canada and China.  Indian immigrants (1.2 million Canadians) are doing the same with India.  We see the same thing happening with Korean immigrants, various Latin American immigrant communities, etc.   This is a strength which gives Canada a huge advantage over other countries, and which helps to keep us competitively positioned vis-à-vis other nations.  Because of politics, it also has a role in shaping our foreign policy (Canada has the largest Ukrainian community in the world outside of the Ukraine — thus it is no coincidence we saw Canada take such a strong and vocal stance on matters currently occurring in Ukraine).

Basically, if Canada needed to call on any of the countries in the first group of five – either because we need to discuss something important, we need to advance an issue, or we need assistance, it’s almost a guarantee that there would be someone on the other end of the phone within minutes or seconds (and most likely the head of the government of that country).

However, these relationships can never be taken for granted.   They must be continuously nurtured and strengthened through continuous cooperation and gestures on our part (they are mutual relationships after all).

The one relationship network out of the group of 5 which holds the greatest potential for large strides is that of La Francophonie.  It also happens to be the loosest and newest network.  It started out almost as a discussion forum (a coffee group, if you will).  But has recently morphed into something in which to achieve goals on humanitarian and human advancement issues.  The goals of the group are not political (yet), but whenever human development issues are pushed forward (vaccinations, aid packages, development initiatives, education, etc.), politics often follow.

I believe Michaëlle Jean’s nomination as the head of La Francophonie is significant to Canada in a few different ways.

By her mere presence as the head of La Francophonie, Canada will be front-and-centre in the minds of member states as being a Francophone nation which carries weight (just as the former head, Abdou Diouf, Senegal’s former president, helped to cement a permanent mental association between Senegal and La Francophonie in the minds of member states).  Canada is already known around the world as a Francophone nation (when I worked in West Africa and Lebanon, you have no idea how many times people would hear my accent in French and immediately ask if I was from Canada.   For many people around the world, Montréal (not Toronto, nor Vancouver) is the first city they associate with Canada – and often the next question I would receive is “Êtes-vous de Montréal?”  (Are you from Montréal?”).   This sort of international recognition we attract in French will only be amplified with Jean at the helm of La Francophonie.  Often the majority of Canada’s aid workers in these regions (either governmental or NGOs) are Francophone – and they’re Canada’s face to the world.

Having Michaëlle Jean as the head of the organization places Canada in other advantageous positions.   She brings to the table her own knowledge of the “rouages” (inner workings) of Canada’s way of functioning.

This is particularly important because the organization is trying to find itself.  La Francophonie remains a relatively new organization.  Because of the vast array of nations involved, it is difficult to lay a concrete plan for how it should or could develop into a political entity.   But things are advancing, and Jean will have a good deal of say in the framework mechanisms which shall be developed.  If things proceed in this direction, the frameworks will likely be well suited for Canada, as she’ll bring her past experiences to use as a template with which to move the organization forward.

French may not be the language with the largest number of speakers, nor has it retained its former place as the international language of business and diplomacy – but after almost a century of decline on the international stage, it looks set to once again take off as an important international language (perhaps much more important than what it ever was in the past).  But this time, for reasons nobody could have ever imagined 15 or 20 years ago.   I’ll explain…

French is the official language of 19 African countries, and is widely used in a few other countries of Africa.  By 2050, these countries alone will have populations close to 1 billion people who will speak French as their official language (let me say that again … from 370 million now, to close to 1 billion people by 2050 — it is the region with the fastest population growth in the world).   But the real significance isn’t in the numbers alone, but rather what these countries are beginning to represent.   For this I’m going to share a little of my own experience.   I lived and worked in China for many years – in manufacturing.  I’m fortunate that I speak Chinese (it continues to be one of my main languages for work with probably 60% or more of my emails in Chinese), and I’ve met many interesting people in China’s business sphere over the years.   In Canada, we vividly remember the days when trade and manufacturing was shifting from Canada to Mexico.  Several years later, we then saw it shift from Mexico to China.   But because of the physical distance between Canada and China, we’re not so acutely aware of new shifts which have taken place over the past 5 to 8 years.   But, in China itself, people certainly see (and feel) it.   Clothing manufacturing has shifted from China to Bangladesh, shoes and light assembly shifted from China to Vietnam, specialty agriculture and silk shifted from China to Myanmar, ore extraction and bulk agriculture shifted from China to Africa – and that shift to Africa has been on a massive, massive scale (I’ve been there and seen it myself.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people of Africa, and how they’re forging forward to make possibly the latter half of this century, and quite possibly the next, the century of Africa).    I hear many Chinese complaining that they’re now unable to compete with the likes of many of these newer manufacturing and trading hubs (which also indirectly also includes India).

But what is happening now is nothing short of astounding…  In the past, China’s international business community has primarily focused on going abroad, getting what they need from other countries, and then bringing it back to China.   In Africa’s case however, this is changing.   The Chinese have built such a vast array of infrastructure in Africa (which serves not only their own China-Africa business, but also as a way to pay for certain economic rights in Africa in lieu of cash), that these African nations (often the Francophone nations) are now on sound footing to soon become the next Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Myanmar, etc.   It probably won’t be long until you begin to see “Made in Gabon”, “Made in Ivory Coast”, “Made in Senegal”, “Made in Cameroun”, “Made in Rwanda” on your clothing labels, electronics, and household items.  Outsourcing of telecentres could also start to shift to Africa (they went from New Brunswick to India, then to the Philippines, and there’s a move afoot to move them to Cameroun – a country which speaks French in the North, and English in the South).  The Chinese see this, and they’re repositioning themselves with respect to Africa so they’re on the “in” when it happens.   It will take a few more years, but it looks like the direction things are taking.  There’s already a mass immigration movement from China to Africa – a permanent movement in which Chinese are not returning to China.   Major brands of international running shoes are already being made in Ethiopia (yes… landlocked Ethiopia – perhaps you already own a pair without even knowing it), and Rwanda is already becoming a hub for African IT (in the 1990s, who would have ever thought that mobile communications IT development would find a hub in Rwanda!?!).

As these changes occur, Africa’s weight in La Francophonie will become even more apparent – and that may eventually be the spark to transform the organization into something new, and give a renewed prominent to French on the world stage.   Member states of La Francophonie are aware of what is happening in this realm, and there is already talk about how to reposition the organization so that it can maintain an active voice in this newly forming world.   It could become a powerful organization in the coming decades.

With Michaëlle Jean at the helm, Canada has an amazing opportunity to be involved in this transformation – an opportunity which will not only benefit the organization, but Canada, our economy, and our international relationships for decades to come.  In the end, China is a 14 hour flight from Toronto, but Africa is only half that distance.

Like many things in the future, it’s tough to say where things will go – these are uncharted waters.  But there are certainly many indicators, and many more possibilities.   Let’s see what happens – the world is seldom a boring place.

It’s certainly not the same Francophone Africa we once knew…

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