DAKAR, Senegal — Former governor general Michaelle Jean has been named the first woman leader of la Francophonie and says its members must work closely together to ensure prosperity and stability.
While the organization has concentrated largely on cultural issues over the years, Jean signalled on Sunday that more emphasis will be put on economic matters.
“One of the most ambitious and daring objectives that la Francophonie has ever set for itself is the idea of an economic Francophonie,” she told a news conference after being named by consensus at a summit of its members in Dakar, Senegal. “We need to work together, unite our efforts, especially as countries want growth, prosperity and development, knowing for example that a crisis in Mali is not (just) a Malian crisis.”
She said a sharply focused economic strategy can provide “new relevance for la Francophonie.”
“Countries, peoples and civilizations came together by doing business together, by exchanging economically together.”
Jean, 57, was up against four other candidates at the summit of la Francophonie, whose 57 members include Canada, Quebec and New Brunswick.
She will replace Abdou Diouf, who stepped down after more than 10 years in the position.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who attended the meeting with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and New Brunswick’s Brian Gallant, congratulated Jean and pointed out that Canada is the second biggest contributor to the organization.
“Obviously, all Canadians are very proud that our fellow citizen, former governor general Michaelle Jean, will be succeeding Abdou Diouf as secretary general of la Francophonie,” Harper told a news conference. “I have no doubt she will fulfil her new responsibilities with distinction and success.”
He said her victory also cast Canada in a positive light.
“It’s a great reflection on our country, on the role we play in the francophone world, internationally, and the recognition of the importance of the French fact and the French reality in our own country.”
He refused to discuss details of how consensus emerged around Jean’s candidacy, but French President Francois Hollande told a news conference it was important to avoid a vote in order to ensure unity.
Harper was asked whether the fact Canada is a bilingual country means the role of English within la Francophonie will suddenly become more important.
“I suspect no,” he replied. “I suspect la Francophonie will continue to function in one language only and that will be French, just as the Commonwealth functions only in English.”
Couillard hailed Jean, who was governor general between 2005 and 2010, as perfect for her new job.
“Michaelle Jean is the incarnation of this new vision of la Francophonie: modern, young and dynamic,” he said. “She will give the francophone world fresh impetus by stressing the importance of economic exchanges among member states.”
Gallant, whose province supported Jean’s bid, also welcomed her victory.
“Haitian, French, Canadian and Quebecer are identities Michaelle Jean shares in, as well as Acadian, thanks to family ties to Acadia on her mother’s side,” said Gallant. “This extensive cultural background gives her a full understanding of la Francophonie.
“She exemplifies the cultural diversity of la Francophonie. She is a consensus builder who can represent the interests of francophones around the world.”
Jean’s reign as governor general included a controversial trip in 2009 to the Arctic where she helped to skin a seal.
Her decision to help butcher the mammal at a festival was derided as “bizarre” by the Belgium-based European Union, and compared by environmentalists to Neanderthalism and wife-battery.
Jean said at the time she was simply sharing in a local custom when she helped butcher the seal animal and eat a piece of its raw heart.
Her family moved to Canada to flee the repressive regime of Haiti’s Francois Duvalier in the 1960s.
She is married to filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond and made several films with him. The former Radio-Canada reporter has worked recently in Haiti as a special envoy for UNESCO and has been the chancellor of the University of Ottawa since 2012.
Gov. Gen. David Johnston issued a statement on behalf of his family to congratulate Jean.
“We are confident that she will fervently and passionately defend not only the French language and culture, but also respect for the shared values of peace, democracy and human rights that have solidified the belonging of each nation in la Francophonie,” he said.
“She already showed her commitment to these causes during her tenure as governor general of Canada.”
Laureen Harper, the prime minister’s wife, tweeted, “Congratulations to my friend.”
The next summit of la Francophonie will be held in Madagascar in 2016.