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Egyptian leads French charge

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So Boutros Boutros-Ghali finally has his revenge. Or is it France?

Forced out as secretary general of the United Nations last year - at the insistence of the United States and over the strong objections of France - the Egyptian statesman now leads "La Francophonie," a grouping of 49 mostly French-speaking nations.Which is somewhat ironic since French is not the first or even second language of Egypt.

But then, neither is much French spoken in Hanoi, which hosted the seventh biennial summit of French-speakers this year. Although Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were colonized by France, fewer than one-tenth of a percent of their populations - all over 60 - now speak the language.

Yet they belong to "La Francophonie," along with such unlikely candidates as Albania, Moldova, Macedonia and Nigeria, where French isn't spoken at all. Even Poland was given observer status, simply because it wanted to join.

Unlike the 54-nation British Commmonwealth, whose membership is restricted to former colonies, "La Francophonie" is open to any country, not just France's former conquests, where French is spoken or even learned.

French culture minister Philippe Douste-Blazy blames the Internet and globalization. "Global trade and communications mean the state must stand guard over the French language, which risks being overpowered by English as frontiers are opened," he wrote in Le Figaro.

That's why France spent $10 million this year on a French speakers' summit in a non-French speaking country. By putting an Egyptian in charge of "La Franco-phonie" and de-emphasizing language as its raison d'etre, Paris hopes the grouping will gain enough political clout to resist the "tyranny of uniformity" - i.e. American English.

If it succeeds in doing that, says Douste-Blazy, French may yet become the "language of the third millenium."

Hence, the Hanoi summit of "La Francophonie" overlooked the linguistic shortcomings of its attendees and concentrated on political issues. It concluded Sunday with the issuance of a Hanoi Declaration and a Plan of Action that covered everything from African wars to human rights.

There were, of course, problems.

The Vietnamese were accused of increasing political repression and stifling their press while signing on to all the human rights resolutions. Hanoi also is a major manufacturer and exporter of land mines, which Human Rights Watch/Asia labeled as being "clearly out of touch with the rest of the Francophonie."

The biggest problem of all, however, was the defection of the former Zaire, whose 40 million people constitute the largest single bloc of French speakers in sub-Saharan Africa. Their new president, Laurent Kabila, refused to attend the summit, saying it was an "extension of French neo-colonialism."