Praise flowed in from politicians of all stripes when former governor general Michaelle Jean was named the first woman leader of la Francophonie four years ago, but her support appears less unanimous as she prepares to seek another term.
Jean was named secretary general of the French-speaking nations’ organization in 2014, with a promise to promote economic development, gender equality and dialogue, especially among the developing African nations.
But in recent months she has been dogged by questions about her expenses, leading one Conservative MP to suggest she has become an embarrassment to Canada.
The expenses, which were reported by Quebecor media outlets, include a $500,000 renovation to her rented Paris residence and a $20,000 piano.
Quebec MP Alupa Clarke recently asked Francophonie Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau how the Liberal party could justify supporting Jean for a second term given her total lack of “transparence”‘ in refusing to publicly explain the expenses.
Clarke’s colleague, Gerard Deltell, also piled on, claiming that “only Liberals” could be proud of Jean’s reign.
“Michaelle Jean has become an embarrassment to Canada,” he said in question period.
Bloc Quebecois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval also suggested the Liberals should not support Jean given various “scandals” during her tenure.
Jean, who was born in Haiti, was Canada’s governor general from 2005 to 2010.
The governments of both Canada and Quebec have pledged to support her if she seeks a second term, while conceding there is room to improve the organization’s financial management.
“Madame Jean has done excellent work at the level of the organization’s mission, she is promoting values that are dear to Canadians,” Bibeau said in response to the Conservative criticism.
“The International Organization of la Francophonie needs a modernization in terms of its financial practices, and that’s what we’ll help them to do.”
A similar position was expressed by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who said last week he is happy to see a Quebecer and Canadian leading the organization.
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He added that concerns about its finances “have been heard,” adding he believes Jean intends to present a plan to address the matter.
While Jean has not officially declared her candidacy, a representative from her office confirmed she has signalled her intention to run again.
The Conservative party’s criticism of Jean is a stark change from its position in 2014, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper praised her election to the post.
“It’s a great reflection on our country, on the role we play in the francophone world, internationally, and the recognition of the importance of the French fact and the French reality in our own country,” he said at the time.
Also not supporting Jean this time is France, which dealt a blow to Jean’s chances at a second term when President Emmanuel Macron said he would back Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo when the organization chooses a new leader in October.
But an expert on La Francophonie said Jean’s biggest challenge in securing re-election isn’t her record, but rather a growing sentiment that the French-language nations’ association should have an African leader.
University of Ottawa professor Linda Cardinal, who holds a research chair on la Francophonie, said Macron’s decision is more likely motivated by France’s desire to forge stronger ties in Africa — Rwanda in particular — following decades of tensions.
And while the controversy over expenses could be a factor, Cardinal noted it’s hardly a surprise given that Jean faced similar criticism as governor general.
As Francophonie leader, Jean has been generally perceived as an “active and involved” secretary general who made advances in some key areas, Cardinal said.
“She wanted to promote entrepreneurship, especially among young people, gender equality, better dialogue among African nations,” she said.
However, Cardinal said some members believe Jean has not been as successful when it comes to promoting dialogue in Africa, which counts the world’s largest French-speaking population.
And, given the organization’s importance in Africa, she said some members believe the top position should be reserved for someone from the continent.
Cardinal, who has met Jean on several occasions, said the former governor general is a “fighter” who will put up a good campaign.
“I think she will fight for the position and that she will try everything she has in order to stay as secretary general, but in the end it is the general assembly that will vote,” she said.