Former governor general Michaëlle Jean has been chosen as secretary-general of la Francophonie, the organization announced today.

Jean was chosen by consensus at the summit of French-speaking nations in Dakar, Senegal, which began on Saturday. She becomes the first woman to hold the position. 

The organization has 57 members or associate members, while another 20 jurisdictions have observer status.

"I am very excited to work with all these women and all these men who make and live the Francophonie daily," Jean said in a written statement following the announcement.

Jean also emphasized the important role of youth and women, and stressed the need to promote the use of the French language and strengthen economic action in the Francophone world.

The CBC's Rosemary Barton said Jean's appointment gives Canada and the Conservative government a much stronger level of influence internationally.

"It allows the prime minister, for instance, to continue to push his agenda of maternal and child health in a different organization within the very countries that he's been targeting," Barton said.

"And it also improves, let's be frank, our reputation internationally as well to have a Canadian head up an organization like this one. So certainly a coup for Jean today, but also a coup for the prime minister who backed this bid and for the country as a whole."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who attended the summit with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, said in a statement that Jean was the ideal person for the job.

"She will embody the renewal and modernity that la Francophonie of the 21st century needs, and will listen to heads of state and government and their citizens," he said.

Laureen Harper, the prime minister's wife, tweeted, "Congratulations to my friend."

Gov. Gen. David Johnston also issued a statement.

"We are confident that she will fervently and passionately defend not only the French language and culture, but also respect for the shared values of peace, democracy and human rights that have solidified the belonging of each nation in la Francophonie," he said.

Jean lobbied hard for position

If the organization's members had any reticence about Jean, Barton said, it's because she's not from Africa.

"Most of the member of la Francophonie are African Nations and there was some concern whether a North American could well represent the needs of Africa," Barton said.

"But remember that Canada is the second biggest donor to la Francophonie and Jean has a background so well-known and she did a lot of work to try to win this. She lobbied countries very, very hard and travelled around to try to get them onside."

Jean's mandate will last four years. She was one of five candidates seeking to replace Abdou Diouf, who stepped down after more than 10 years on the job.

Jean, 57, was governor general between 2005 and 2010. She was born in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 6, 1957, during the era of the Duvalier dictatorships in Haiti. Her family moved to Thetford Mines, Que., in 1968.

The former Radio-Canada reporter has worked recently in Haiti as a special envoy for UNESCO and has been the chancellor of the University of Ottawa since 2012.


  • An earlier version of this story quoted a statement from Gov. Gen. David Johnston noting Michaëlle Jean is the first woman and the first Canadian to head the International Organization of la Francophonie, which was created in 1997. In the early 1990s, Canadian Jean-Louis Roy was head of an earlier organization now under the umbrella of la Francophonie.
    Dec 01, 2014 1:42 PM ET
With files from The Canadian Press