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Michaelle Jean makes final pitch to keep top post as Francophonie summit opens

Last Updated Oct 11, 2018 at 10:00 am MDT

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is officially greeted by Michaelle Jean, secretary-general of the Francophonie, as he arrives to the Francophonie Summit in Yerevan, Armenia on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

YEREVAN, Armenia – Michaelle Jean made a public plea to hold on to her post as secretary general of la Francophonie Thursday, urging member nations not to allow the defence of rights and democracy to take a back seat to partisan ambitions.

For Jean, the address to the opening session of the summit of la Francophonie was a final stand ahead of a closed-door meeting of members Friday to choose the next secretary general. Her words were clearly aimed at her rival for the post, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

“At a moment when we march toward the 50th anniversary of la Francophonie, lets ask ourselves here in Yerevan, in all conscience and in all responsibility, on which side of history do we want to be,” Jean said.

“Are we ready to accept that international organizations are used for partisan purposes?” Jean asked. “Are we ready to accept that democracy, rights and freedoms are reduced to mere words, that we make them meaningless in the name of realpolitik?”

The former Canadian governor general, who has held the top job at the organization of French-speaking nations since 2014, is facing an uphill battle as she seeks a second term.

After months of supporting her, the Canadian and Quebec governments announced this week that they would rally around the “consensus” candidate, Mushikiwabo. Traditionally, the selection of a secretary general is by agreement, not through a vote.

Mushikiwabo already had the support of France — which is the main funder of la Francophonie — and many African Union countries.

Rwanda has managed to secure support for Mushikiwabo’s candidacy despite its poor record upholding democratic rights and freedom of the press. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been labelled an authoritarian by rights groups.

Jean, however, refused to back down amid diminishing chances of securing another term. Her spokesman, Bertin Leblanc, has said any consensus must be reached by the heads of state and governments behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, a source close to Jean’s campaign says some African leaders are uncomfortable with the idea of a done deal and have even told her directly that they find themselves in an impossible position.

According to a survey by Radio France International, the Haitian-born Jean had the support of 17 or 18 delegations on the eve of the summit. La Francophonie has 54 full member states and governments.

Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the “remarkable work” done by the former governor general, who has focused on women, youth and human rights while in the post.

“Michaelle affirmed herself as an ardent defender of women, notably by asserting their right to education and fighting for their emancipation,” Trudeau told heads of state in the Armenian capital, lauding her dedication and contagious energy.

Trudeau and Jean had a one-on-one meeting upon the prime minister’s arrival in Yerevan but no details were released.

Despite not backing her, French President Emmanuel Macron also paid homage to Jean’s defence of women’s rights.

“La Francophonie must be the space that fights for the rights of women, and I want to salute the work that was done by Michaelle Jean, to whom I pay tribute, who strongly mobilized in this fight,” Macron said near the end of his opening remarks.

“La Francophonie must be feminist, and you were right, madame secretary general, not to give up in this fight.”

Trudeau also paid tribute to the late Charles Aznavour, whose music was playing throughout the site of the summit. The French-Armenian singer died Oct. 1.

“When I arrived in Armenia, I immediately thought of a great man I loved so much, a great lover of the French language who died last week, the incomparable Charles Aznavour,” Trudeau said.

“In the days following his death, francophones and francophiles of the world united in mourning through his work. This momentum of solidarity was perhaps the greatest tribute that could have been made to him.”