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World: Francophone Summit Seeks Linguistic 'Diversity'

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 12 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Leaders of 49 nations and national regions in which French is spoken will gather in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi Friday to begin a three-day summit of "La Francophonie," a loose association grouping some 450 million people around the world.

Financed by France and promoted strongly by President Jacques Chirac, the meeting's aim is to in fact to bolster the ranks of and tighten the links among international French-speakers. In an interview published today by the state-controlled French-language daily "Courrier du Vietnam," Chirac called for linguistic and cultural diversity as an alternative to the international dominance of the English language and U.S. cultural influence.

To do so, Chirac said, the summit will name a permanent Paris-based staff to be led by former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a French-educated Egyptian diplomat whose hopes for a second term at the UN were vetoed by the U.S. last year. Chirac said Boutros-Ghali will be tasked with defending Francophone interests just as the Commonwealth secretary-general defends those of Britain's former colonies. To another Government-run journal, the English-language weekly "Vietnam Investment Review," Chirac said the new post would help the Francophone community play what he called "a significant role on the world stage."

Accompanied by some 200 French businessmen, Chirac arrived this morning in Vietnam for a two-day, pre-summit official visit designed to increase France's economic cooperation and trade with its former colony. Vietnam formally achieved independence after more than a century of French rule in 1956, following the defeat of the French army at Dien Bien Phu by Communist-led forces. Two decades later, then North Vietnam forced out 500,000 U.S. troops, who had sought to maintain the independence of the South, and united the country. Today, Vietnam remains -- along with China, Cuba and North Korea -- one of four Communist-ruled countries in the world and economically quite backward.

Only some 500,000 of Vietnam's 76 million people now have any knowledge of French, and only 50,000 of them are fluent in the language. Russian and Chinese, the languages of Vietnam's old allies, were favored in the early decades of its independence. But with the Government pushing for "Dong Hoi" ("economic renovation") in recent years in order to compete internationally, English has become the preferred second language for almost all Vietnamese under 30 years of age and for many over 30. As for French, a Vietnamese writer (Nguyen Xuan Thu) told AFP that it "remains the preserve of the old guard who are more than 60 years old."

Even before Chirac arrived in the country, Vietnam's controversial human-rights record emerged as an issue likely to shadow both his visit and the Francophone summit. The Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights handed Chirac a statement signed by dozens of French intellectuals and celebrities. It urged the leaders of Francophone nations not to skirt the nation's human-rights problems problem at their meeting and called on Hanoi to release political and religious prisoners estimated in the low thousands.

Yesterday, France's private TF1 television channel, the most popular in the country, revealed that a camera crew and reporter had in recent days managed to shoot the first Western film ever of a Vietnamese prison camp where a leading dissident has been held for years. A spokeswoman for TF1 said the film of the camp where writer Dien Viet Hoat is imprisoned would be shown tomorrow night on the eve of the summit's opening. The reporter wrote in yesterday's daily "Le Monde" that Hoat was fed only once a day, spoke constantly to himself in Vietnamese, French and English, and had last been visited -- for a quarter-of-an-hour -- by his brother 20 months ago.

French officials say that Chirac intended to bring up the human-rights issue in his bilateral meetings today and tomorrow, specifying dissidents about whom Paris is particularly concerned. It is not clear, however, whether the issue will be discussed publicly at the summit. But what is clear is that for the 200 French businessmen looking for investment and trade opportunities in Vietnam, as well as for many of the 48 other participants in the Francophone summit, human rights are decidedly a secondary matter.