French President Emmanuel Macron has affirmed his country’s support for Rwanda’s candidate for the post of Secretary General for the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), the body of French-speaking countries.
During a meeting with President Paul Kagame in New York, President Macron said France would continue to back Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo in the elections, set to be held when OIF members convene in Yerevan, Armenia from October 11-12.
President Macron’s backing of Ms Mushikiwabo is significant since it is a tradition for the candidate backed by France to secure the position.
In addition, the Rwandan candidate is going into the election with the full backing of the African Union, effectively guaranteeing her 29 of the 58 votes.
Out of the 84 members of OIF, 58 have voting rights while 26 are observers. Mushikiwabo has been endorsed by the AU which has 29 members with voting rights. She has also visited almost all voting countries.
Ms Mushikiwabo will be running against incumbent Canadian Michelle Jean, who held the post for the past four years.
Diplomatic cold war
The Rwandan candidate has outlined four pillars of her Francophone agenda’ for the next four years as: Increasing the influence of the French language; tackling youth unemployment; exchange of good practices and increasing the relevance of la Francophonie on a global stage.
According to Rwanda’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe, “President Macron reiterated his support to Louise Mushikiwabo during the meeting in New York.”
The French leader has backed the Rwandan despite criticism back home mainly by French opposition politicians and media outlets claiming that the usage of French as a language declined in Rwanda over the past 24 years despite it remaining one of the three official languages.
Since coming into office in May 2017, President Macron has initiated rapprochement between Kigali and Paris, holding talks with President Kagame on at least two occasions and inviting him over to Paris in May.
Mr Nduhungirehe said that while relations with France remain work-in-progress, there is goodwill on both sides to improve the shaky bilateral ties.
Since September 2015, France has not had an ambassador in Kigali.
Paris refused to nominate a new envoy after Rwanda refused to approve the ambassador-designate, Fred Constant, to replace Mr Michel Flesch, in Rwanda since 2012, following the defrosting of ties.
When Rwanda rejected Mr Constant, France refused to name a new envoy, maintaining the first counsellor, Xavier Verjus-Renard, in charge of its diplomatic mission in Kigali.
Before Mr Flesch was nominated in 2012, Rwanda had also rejected the envoy-designate Helene Le Gal who Kigali said had links to French politicians accused of abetting the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Despite the diplomatic hurdles, Kigali remains hopeful that the two countries which have had a love-hate relationship for the past 24 years, will start a new chapter.
“As for the relationships with France, we will continue working on improving them,” Minister Nduhungirehe told The EastAfrican.
President Macron backing Rwanda’s candidate for OIF at the time when Rwanda was named the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020 is seen as a strong sign of the two countries making good.
Ms Mushikiwabo is optimistic that the support will propel her to the leadership of the OIF post.
“I have a lot of support for this position, not only on the African continent but also across the globe,” the Rwandan diplomat told the French television TV5 Monde last week.
“I will go to Yerevan with a smile … I am confident,” Mushikiwabo said.
Ms Mushikiwabo, who has traversed the world over the past two months canvassing for support said she will overcome her competitor.
The Canadian diplomat and former Governor General was also in New York canvassing for votes to retain her position but political observers say that with France siding with the African candidate, the deal is as good as done.
French media reported that there was first a tête-à-tête, on September 25 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, between President Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau concerning the OIF election, there was no consensus.
In May this year, Mrs Jean defended herself against allegations of misuse of funds, including allocating benefits to her husband who is not an employee of La Francophonie but termed it “a smear campaign aimed at tainting my track record.”
Reports in Canadian press indicate that Mrs Jean has received ‘lukewarm’ support in her bid to retain her position.
Mr Nduhungirehe says that Rwanda has been able to woo African countries under the African Union to support Ms Mushikiwabo’s bid while members outside Africa have also backed Rwanda to take over OIF leadership.
“The chances are good. Rwanda has the endorsement of the African Union, which includes 29 member states, the biggest contributor France, as well as many other countries, the last one being Vanuatu,” Nduhungirehe told The EastAfrican.
“Our candidate has nine years experience as Rwanda Minister of Foreign Affairs and has an ambitious programme for the Francophonie,” Nduhungirehe added.
While the OIF largely remains a big organisation whose influence and might have dwindled over the years compared to the Commonwealth for instance, Rwanda views the leadership of the organisation as a big opportunity and a big score at the international and diplomatic level.
Kigali maintains that the La Francophonie is a vital organ and offers many benefits. Ms Mushikiwabo has vowed to revitalise the body beyond just promoting the French language but rather a bloc that offers economic and trade opportunities.
“Both OIF and Commonwealth are relevant in the international arena and Rwanda is happy to contribute to the promotion of both communities,” Nduhungirehe said.
Rwanda targets benefits that will come with leading the 84-member bloc but observers say the motives “are political” in nature and could boost Rwanda’s status globally.
In March and May, President Macron laid out a plan to revitalise the OIF.
On March 20, he released 33 proposals to make La Francophonie a more pluralistic and proactive organisation. He mentioned increased funding to education and investment in what he described as “a new La Francophonie.”
Opponents of Ms Mushikiwabo’s bid have accused Rwanda of clamping down on freedom of speech and expression while others argue that Kigali must open up political space and free political prisoners.
Ms Mushikiwabo while speaking on the French TV dismissed the allegations and denied reports in French media that the recent pardon of 2,140 convicts, including opposition politician Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire, and singer Kizito Mihigo, had something to do with her vying for the OIF top job.
President Kagame, who is the current AU chairman, also reiterated that Rwanda did not act out of pressure but it is a routine practice in Rwanda for the last 24 years to pardon reformed convicts, including even those who were involved in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
In New York, Ms Mushikiwabo continued the campaign, meeting several heads of State from OIF members and Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Moldova, Vanuatu, Albania, among others.
On Wednesday, the AU hosted a reception of Foreign Affairs Ministers from French speaking African countries in honour of the African candidate for the post of SG of La Francophonie.
Observers say that Ms Mushikiwabo’s ascent to Francophonie leadership will open a new chapter of relations between Rwanda and France.
The love-hate affair between the two countries mainly is due to differing narratives on the Genocide against the Tutsi, with Kigali maintaining that Paris needs to come clean on the role of French politicians and military in the killings.
If Ms Mushikiwabo’s bid succeeds, it will pave the way for France and Rwanda to mend relations but observers say, until the two countries agree on the history of the Genocide against the Tutsi, disagreements will remain.
“It is a sign that ties between the two countries are defrosting though there are many things that need to change. President Macron has showed that he can change a lot during his time in office,” says scholar Tom Ndahiro.