Francophone conference
Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye (L), Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C), and Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault (R-down) attend a working session during a bilateral meeting at the 18th Francophone countries Summit in Djerba, on November 19, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Tunis: Leaders of French-speaking countries gathered Saturday on a Tunisian island to discuss debt relief, migration, food and energy shortages amid a soaring cost-of-living crisis across Africa, Europe and the Middle East due to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the presidents of eight African nations were attending the 18th biannual meeting of the 88-member International Organisation of Francophonie, which promotes relations among nations that use French as their primary language.

European Council President Charles Michel also was in Tunisia for the two-day summit, the organisation’s first gathering in three years following pandemic lockdowns.

Louise Mushikiwabo, the group’s secretary-general and Rwanda’s former foreign minister, said the participants plan to issue a final declaration on major political, social and economic issues after the summit ends Sunday.

They will also focus on “ways to boost the use of the French language around Europe and in international institutions as its use declines compared to English,” Mushikiwabo said.

She called on participants to support the group’s reforms aimed to enable member nations to better face challenges on issues such as security, climate change and gender equality.

There are more than 320 million French-speaking people around the world, according to the group’s estimates, and presidents of Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Mauritania, Niger, Burundi and Rwanda are representing millions of French speakers from across the African continent in Djerba, including Tunisia.

The president of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, did not attend amid escalating tensions with neighboring Rwanda, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame was at the meeting in Djerba. The Congolese government tweeted Saturday that Tshisekedi stayed away to condemn “Rwandan aggression.”

Congolese Prime Minister Sama Lukonde travelled to Tunisia in the president’s place. Lukonde refused to appear in the group photo during the opening session because of Kagame’s presence.

Congolese authorities accuse Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels, which Rwanda denies. Violence by armed groups in eastern Congo has forced hundreds to flee over the past few months, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the two French-speaking African nations.

The summit and a two-day meeting of the organisation’s economic forum next week are taking place amid tight security. Tunisia has been in the grip of a political and economic crisis.

In preparation for the international meetings, authorities also gave Djerba a makeover, building new roads and improving infrastructure around the island that is a major tourist hub and home to several historical sites, including one of Africa’s oldest synagogues.

The meetings are expected to boost the standing of Tunisian President Kais Saied, who has been criticised by the West for granting himself sweeping powers over the past year after sacking the prime minister and dissolving parliament.

Said said the moves were necessary to save the North African country amid protracted political and economic crises, and many Tunisians welcomed them. But critics and Western allies say the power grab jeopardised Tunisia’s young democracy.

Last month, the Tunisian government reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a $1.9 billion loan that is designed to ease the country’s protracted budget crisis and calm simmering discontent over soaring food and energy shortages.