Trudeau at French-speaking summit in Tunisia amid ‘battle of influence’ for

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began a brief visit to Africa on Saturday as part of what his foreign affairs minister described as a fight for power on the continent between democratic and authoritarian states.

“The reality is there is a battle of influence that is happening around the world, and one of the battlefields is definitely Africa,” Mélanie Joly told reporters in Tunisia.

“It is important for us to show up and be able to engage while China and Russia are definitely trying to exert their influence.”

Joly’s remarks came halfway through the weekend summit of the International Organization of the Francophonie, where leaders of French-speaking countries are taking stock of a turbulent era in geopolitics.

On the agenda are chaos in Haiti, soaring food prices, citizen mistrust of governments and anxiety over the language’s role in the digital age.

Like the Commonwealth, the Francophonie Summit allows member countries to touch base on everything from human rights and cultural exchanges to the international role of French.

This weekend’s summit follows cancellations in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada had pushed to postpone meeting

It comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent food prices soaring across Africa, which makes up an increasing percentage of the French-speaking world.

The issue is particularly of concern in North Africa, where the cost of bread was among the grievances that exploded into the Arab Spring protests from 2010 to 2012.

“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine “means clearly there’s a food crisis in the world, affecting particularly African countries, so we want to engage in solutions mode,” Joly said.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, right, and Louise Mushikiwabo, left, secretary general of the International Organization of the Francophonie, receive Trudeau during the opening ceremony of the 18th Francophone Summit on Saturday. (Hassene Dridi/The Associated Press)

The Arab Spring protests started in Tunisia, leading to the overthrow of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the establishment of democratic elections.

But the country hosting this weekend’s summit has been backsliding, with Tunisian President Kais Saied suspending parliament in 2021, concentrating power and attacking key institutions.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns over Saied’s government jailing journalists, sacking judges and giving religion a prominent role in the military.

Ottawa wanted the Francophonie Summit to be postponed over those concerns, while the Quebec government pondered a boycott before deciding it was better to use the summit to form deeper ties with African nations.

Saied was evasive about his role in making countries uncomfortable with attending.

“As everyone knows, there was a question — in difficult moments, for multiple reasons — to hold this summit at a distance through video conference, even, for some, to cancel it and hold it elsewhere,” Saied said, speaking in French, during his opening address Saturday.

Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with Quebec Premier François Legault, left, during the Francophonie Summit on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


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