France backs controversial Rwandan candidate to head Francophonie

Ludovic Marin, AFP | Rwanda's Foreign Affairs Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, who is running for Secretary General of the International Organisation de La Francophonie (OIF), at the UN General Assembly, September 25, 2018.

The International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF) chooses its new leader at a summit in Armenia on Thursday and Friday. But the French-backed candidacy of Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo has caused a great deal of controversy.


“I’m very confident – I’m going to Yerevan with a smile on my face,” Mushikiwabo told French news outlet TV5Monde on August 2. But not every representative of this organisation – which brings together countries where French is widely spoken, or which are deemed to have a particular affinity with French culture – is so smiley about Mushikiwabo’s candidacy.

In a showdown between two women, the Rwandan is facing off against the Québécois Canadian Michaëlle Jean, the incumbent secretary general, who is seeking a second term. But Mushikiwabo has a clear advantage, seeing as she enjoys the support of both France and the African Union; by contrast, Jean has lost the support of her native Canada and Quebec.

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“An African secretary general would make a lot of sense, and a female African candidate would make even more sense,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on May 23, after a meeting with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame.

“Louise Mushikiwabo has all the skills for the job, and having an African candidate is good news – so I will back her,” France’s self-declared Jupiterian president concluded.

This seems surprising, coming from France. Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, relations between Paris and Kigali have been extremely tense – not least because Kagame’s Rwanda isn’t exactly a shining beacon of democracy. In power since 1994, Kagama has established many of the trappings of an authoritarian regime – most notably, changing the constitution to allow him to stay in power until 2034. And Mushikiwabo is considered the number two in Kagame’s government, as foreign minister, having consistently shown her loyalty to the regime by backing even the most blatant human rights violations.

Another problem – and a very pertinent one for the Francophonie – is that Kagame has repeatedly sidelined the French language in Rwanda, in favour of English. This includes making English a national language, writing laws in English and ending teaching in French in Rwandan schools. Kagame has even used English while speaking to Macron, and while addressing the OIF.

Then in 2014, the Rwandan government even bulldozed the Franco-Rwandan cultural centre, which promoted the French language and culture, in the capital Kigali.

Francophonie summit: Who is Louise Mushikiwabo?

‘Francophonie’s ability to defend free press at stake’

In light of all this, NGOs and politicians have expressed their opposition to Mushikiwabo’s candidacy.

“How will the Francophonie be able to promote freedom of the press, as part of its mission of advocating for human rights, if it’s headed by one of the key leaders of a country that’s trampled on media freedom and repressed journalists for 18 years?” asked Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.

French politicians, including the former minister responsible for French people overseas, Hélène Conway-Mouret, have also expressed their concerns about Macron’s favoured candidate.

“This candidacy is a big mistake,” Conway-Mouret told FRANCE 24. “We’re saying what everyone’s thinking: the OIF is a big family that promotes the French language – but Mushikiwabo has never shown the slightest bit of interest in it. On the contrary, she’s said that French is useless.

“The Francophonie also stands for particular values,” Conway-Mouret continued. “So how can you speak for its democratic ideals, while also defending human rights abuses in Rwanda?”

Moreover, many wonder how much Rwanda can bring to the Francophonie when Kagame’s government has been reluctant to pay its financial contribution. It built up arrears of €30,000 per year, which remained unpaid until May 2018.

On the other hand, voices in the French government say that Rwanda needs to be given a chance. “Some regimes can really progress when it comes to respecting democratic values,” Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the minister for the Francophonie, told French weekly tabloid “Le Journal du Dimanche”.

“Meanwhile Rwanda has made big advances when it comes to gender equality, compared to other French-speaking countries,” Lemoyne continued.

Francophonie as a vehicle for French interests

This is not the first time that France has made a surprising choice of favoured candidate. In 2014, when the popular revolt was gaining momentum against the then president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, Paris suggested making him head of the Francophonie as a way out. Of course, Compaoré was in France’s good books because he had never stood in the way of its interests in western Africa.

In a similar fashion, Mushikiwabo’s candidacy also seems a vehicle for French interests. “There is a tremendous converge of economic and geopolitical interests behind Mushikiwabo’s candidacy,” Pascal Airault, a journalist at French weekly “L’Opinion” and co-author of "Françafrique, opérations secrètes et affaires d'État", a study of France’s murky dealings in Africa, told FRANCE 24’s sister-service RFI.

“Rwanda is a small country that carries disproportionate influence in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and – ever the pragmatist – Macron sees better ties with Rwanda as a way for France to regain its influence in that economically lucrative part of the continent, where the Americans have had a strong presence since the Clinton administration,” Airault continued.

“France has long used the OIF as a tool to defend its interests overseas,” added Antoine Glaser, a French journalist and Africa specialist.

“Under François Hollande, France let Canada take centre stage, opening the door to Michaëlle Jean's candidacy – but Macron is taking back control,” Glaser told RFI.

“And so, in supporting Mushikiwabo, he’s killing two birds with one stone,” he concluded. “Not only is he restoring ties between France and Rwanda – he’s also ensuring that control of the OIF goes back to Africa, so that the task of safeguarding French interests goes through African leaders. It’s a masterstroke worthy of a chess champion.”

This article was adapted from the original in French

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