November 24, 2022
The Francophonie Summit came to an end earlier this week. The gathering of French-speaking countries brought together 31 heads of state and government in Djerba, Tunisia. The summit was supposed to focus on digitization, the economy and boosting a “Francophonie 2.0” vision, but backstage politics took over the agenda, especially in the form of bitter rivalries between countries and other snobbery. Interestingly, President Emmanuel Macron stated that the French language might be falling behind and called for a phase of “resistance and reconquest.” This is about more than just the French language, it is also about France’s global influence, especially in Africa.
A week earlier, during COP27, Commonwealth of Nations Secretary-General Patricia Scotland highlighted the impact of climate disasters on the countries of the association. In Pakistan, devastating floods have claimed more than 1,700 lives and affected 33 million people since June. Similarly, in Nigeria, more than 600 people have died and 1.3 million displaced due to the worst floods seen in the country in more than a decade. This is an important indication of how the British-led Commonwealth’s 56 countries focus on the climate. The new economy has also become an important area for future development.
Both of these organizations were born naturally as symbols of the soft power of the world’s two largest colonizing powers. They came to light at a time when discovery, architecture, literature and private business expansion were blossoming. Since then, the world has changed many times over. And the two former most powerful countries in the world no longer have what is needed to make their soft power useful to their interests. They lost the hard power.
And so, the Francophonie and Commonwealth are today like orphan twins. They are facing the same challenges to find out who they are in this new world. They have each, in their own style, brought forward the same solutions of focusing on education and culture, as well as climate and the new economy.
They are looking to keep their spheres of influence through this new approach, which focuses on the economy and not politics. Yet, in this exercise, they are discovering what they probably already knew — that it is power and only hard power that made these organizations mandatory. They have now become optional.
This is especially true as countries from both groups are becoming more influential in their own regional spheres and forcing a new approach. Some countries in the old sphere of influence have even refused to join the Francophonie group. For example, this has never been undertaken by the various Algerian leaders because they always wanted to clearly state their independence from the former colonizing power. Today, with the energy crisis, Algeria can even play better cards. For the Commonwealth, on the other hand, countries such as Jamaica and St. Kitts and Nevis are contemplating removing the British monarch as their head of state, just as Barbados did last year. Indeed, optional.
In Africa, some countries are taking the opposite route and joining the Commonwealth. Yet, according to African analysts, this is a way of contesting the French area of influence and proving that other options exist. This is mainly why Gabon and Togo — both former French colonies and members of the Francophonie group — chose to join the Commonwealth earlier this year. However, such moves are futile for both France and the UK in Africa, as the reality indicates they are being overtaken by Russia on the military side and China on the economic side. More recently, the US has also started moving swiftly, with more strength focused on both military and economic activities.
This might indicate a greater loss of influence for France in Africa among French-speaking countries — a slow death to what was often labeled as France-Afrique. One point that has been raised consistently in recent months, and not only by the new Italian prime minister, regards the CFA franc that links African countries to France. There has not only been a push to break out of the Francophonie and change sides, but also break the French economic and geopolitical sphere of influence.
However, the reason for the loss of influence of both concepts runs deeper. Indeed, there is also a reason from within these countries. They are too busy looking inward and pushing progressive agendas that are completely disconnected with the tough and dangerous realities of this new world. This has, in a way, accelerated the loss of both hard and soft power by creating crises with allies on human rights issues for no reason, while backing out without a clear achievement either. This lack of strategy has also led regional countries to be more pragmatic and check for what serves their interests.
The two former most powerful countries in the world no longer have what is needed to make their soft power useful to their interests.
Khaled Abou Zahr
So, what should be next? Pragmatism, or more precisely honesty, is always a good approach if they can no longer maintain these unions and project their influence and power. France should go back to the real roots of Francophonie — the beauty of the French language — and the same applies for English. It is a link of unity and more than just a language. There is no need to add a political layer to it. The language spoken by 350 million people already creates close bonds. And this is how this might play out for a better future: Let the private sector take the driver’s seat and governments sit back.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is chief executive of Eurabia, a media and tech company, and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view