Some 600 journalists were covering the second Francophone summit here last week. That's not as many as the few thousand who go to the annual economic summits of the seven major industrialized nations of the noncommunist world. But when the ``hard'' news is relatively skimpy, as it tends to be at summits, journalists often justify their presence by scrambling for ``color'' stories. This conference of leaders from some 37 nations whose first or second language is French was no exception. The summit's goal was to further develop an association of nations that would promote the French language, politically counterbalance the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, and work together economically.
There was, actually, some solid news. For example, Canada announced it was forgiving repayment of $324.9 million (US $243.6 million) of debts owed to it by Senegal, Zaire, Madagascar, Congo, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Cameroon. (Cameroon was not a summit participant.) Another item of hot news was the military coup in the African nation of Burundi, while its president, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, was attending this conference.
A columnist in the Montreal Gazette noted: ``Many journalists found little to write about and thanked the Great Journalist in the Sky for sending a coup in Burundi to relieve the tedium.''
A great deal of ink and many television seconds were devoted to the drugging of pigeons near the conference site, a measure designed to keep them from getting airborne and soiling the colorful robes of the visiting African dignitaries.
Then the French delegation solemnly issued a statement advising the press that Prime Minister Jacques Chirac would be walking his dog in the park behind the Chateau Frontenac at such-and-such a time. A small mob of camera crews and reporters recorded this great event.
More seriously, the summit did point to several political facts.
One concerns the character of African governments. Just before the meeting, Amnesty International, the human rights group, issued a report alleging that many of the nations in attendance were guilty of various human rights violations. Among those listed were Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Laos, Lebanon, Mali, Niger, Togo, Vietnam, and Zaire. Their leaders were given red-carpet treatment.
Canada, wanting to promote the continuation of this Francophone grouping, had the delicate task of not ignoring the human rights situation, yet not making so much fuss that an offended delegation would head for home. In his opening address, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney commented carefully: ``The promotion of human rights ... must not be sacrificed to the demands of development, nor can these rights flourish without an adequate economic environment.''
Another noteworthy element in the conference was the good relations between the federal government and the Quebec provincial government. There was even a Canadian flag flying alongside Quebec's Fleur-de-Lis from the top of the provincial ``National Assembly.'' One Quebec official said he had never seen the Canadian flag flying in that exalted position before.
The launching of the Francophone summit in Paris in 1986 was delayed for at least five years by squabbling between Ottawa and Quebec. When Ren'e L'evesque, leader of the Parti Qu'eb'ecois was provincial premier, his goal was a separate Quebec in association with Canada. The prime minister of Canada then, Pierre Trudeau, also a Quebecker, wanted to keep Canadian united.
But Mr. L'evesque resigned from office in 1985 and Mr. Trudeau fell from power in 1984.
Their successors, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Mr. Mulroney, have worked at getting along. After some clashes at the Paris summit, the two worked out a detailed protocol to assure greater harmony at this event. The scarlet-jacketed Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police not always welcome in Quebec, were interspersed with the olive-coated Quebec Provincial Police at ceremonial events. Mulroney and Mr. Bourassa alternated as chairmen of the sessions. They took pains to compliment each other in public.
Under the Canadian Constitution, foreign affairs comes under federal jurisdiction. But the protocol said that in dealing with the ``world economic situation,'' the premier of Quebec could speak out with the agreement of the prime minister. Bourassa, a Harvard-trained economist, did get Mulroney's approval to suggest at a press conference that developing country external debt payments be tied to the world price of relevant commodities.
Curiously, there was something of a hidden rivalry between Canada and France here. France has considered its former African colonies as something of a commercial reserve for French business. Canada, especially French-speaking Quebec, has been wanting to invade that commercial territory. So Canadian generosity in the form of debt forgiveness and new packages of foreign aid had a dual motive as a door-opener for Canadian business as well as economic development. Leaders of both nations denied any rivalry.
The next Francophone summit will be in Dakar, Senegal, in 1989.