The limousines of presidents and prime ministers drive at high speed down an empty highway, guarded by rigid soldiers, towards a gleaming new conference hall that rises out of the Sahel and is reputed to have cost Senegal more than $100m.
It is easy to sneer at summit meetings, but the biennial gathering of “La Francophonie” is perhaps especially vulnerable to ridicule.
For a start, many of the member and observer countries don’t even speak French. The flags of Greece, Moldova, Kosovo, Thailand, Mozambique, Ghana, Egypt, Qatar and many other non-French speaking countries flutter above the highway.
On the beaches of Dakar, we asked the fishermen what they made of it all. Dudu paused from the hard work of pulling his nets out of his pirogue and said: “Frankly we don’t understand what La Francophonie is. We’re not paying any attention to this summit. We’ve heard people talking about it, but nobody has explained what it is.”
Adama, squatting nearby in the sand with a box of fresh fish at her feet said: “I don’t care about La Francophonie. But if someone wants to help us, they can bring down the cost of nets, of fuel, and life-jackets. And they should stop those big fishing ships from coming into our waters and taking our fish,” she said, with an angry jerk towards the Atlantic Ocean behind her, where European and Asian boats plunder from Senegalese waters.
French and English
Even presidents sometimes struggled to define what exactly La Francophonie is. Certainly, the numbers are impressive. The Organisation Internationale de La Francophonie (OIF) boasts 77 member and observer countries, representing some 900 million people.
Of these, perhaps 220 million people actually speak French. Almost half of these are African, and this proportion will expand as African populations continue to grow into the twenty-first century. French and English, according to the OIF, are the only languages to be spoken on all five continents.
But what does La Francophonie do for the people who live in it? The Senegalese President, Macky Sall, said, “La Francophonie of the People is a common language and a culture, peace and security. Democracy, and human rights.”
But La Francophonie of the People is also economic ties, education, training, and technology at the service of the greatest numbers of people. That all sounds wonderful, but in a rather meaningless vague way.
The cynics say La Francophonie is no more than a relic of colonialism, which, like the British Commonwealth, is fast losing relevance in a changing world. France is still the dominant power in the organisation, contributing almost a third of its budget. By unspoken tradition, La Francophonie has been led by a succession of elderly African statesmen, which also opens it up to accusations of conservatism and inflexibility.
So perhaps the most significant development at the Senegal summit was the appointment (by consensus, we were told, although the Presidents spent a suspiciously long time behind closed doors) of a new secretary-general who is not only a woman, but also from Canada.
Michaelle Jean, the former governor general of Canada, is of Haitian origin. 57 years old, she was the youngest candidate to stand for the post.
The French let it be known that they saw her as the candidate who could take La Francophonie into the 21st Century.
She has promised to emphasis the rights of women and children. So can La Francophonie reinvent itself under Madame Jean?
We should have a better idea in 2016 when the member states get together again, this time in Madagascar.