A ``French commonwealth'' is about to be born. Unlike the older, established Commonwealth, which traces its origins to the British empire, the new French alliance will be tied together primarily by its language. The foreign ministers of 40 nations, in which French is, or has been, a principal language, agreed in Paris last week to form an organization of ``Francophones.'' The heads of state of these nations will meet in Paris in February under the chairmanship of French President Franois Mitterrand and will celebrate the birth of the French-speaking community.
The membership of the French commonwealth, like its British counterpart, will come mostly from its former colonies. It will be diverse, including Canada, Belgium, Lebanon, Vietnam, Egypt, Zaire, Tunisia, Morocco, and Haiti. The commonwealth will represent roughly 300 million people living on five contients.
Canada may be a main beneficiary of the new alliance, as the only nation which is a member of both British and French commonwealths. One Canadian diplomat said it will be like having ``a finger in both pies.'' Also, Canada will have three seats in the organization, as the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick will be admitted as official members.
The commonwealth project dates back to the early 1960s and to Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Over the years it ran into two major stumbling blocks:
In Canada, Quebec and Ottawa were engaged in a political struggle regarding Quebec's attempts to withdraw from the Canadian federation. Working behind the scenes, France at times tried to exploit this intra-Canadian problem.
France itself paid lip service to the fulfillment of the Francophone dream, but in fact was often of two minds about the wisdom of starting such an organization.
One well-placed diplomatic source says France feared that some African nations might seek an increased share of influence in the organization and would look to France not as the leader, but as just another partner.
Both obstacles have fallen. The Quebec drive for separatism has faded, and the French government sees public relations benefits to be gained from moving ahead with the commonwealth.
The Socialists are likely to be defeated in the legislative elections scheduled for March, and President Mitterrand decided to grab this chance of improving his image, says one source. Four weeks before the vote takes place, he will preside over a gathering of 40 heads of state and play the role of the ``father of the French commonwealth,'' this source says.
``Some participants in this new international group were attracted less by the love of the French language than by political and economic opportunities it offers them,'' says one French official.
Vietnam is isolated, he says. Through the commonwealth it may gain access to economic aid and technology. For Egypt, it may open a door to the European Common Market. Morocco, which quit the Organization of African Unity recently over political disagreements with neighbors, is ``coming back to Africa through the back door,'' says the official.
The French hope to see another benefit come from the new organization -- increased development of technology.
``Unless the French-speaking industrial nations cooperate in creating a French communication industry [French data banks, computer software, telecommunications] now, we shall have to live with technology `made in the USA' or `made in Japan' and only translated into French,'' says one French diplomat.
``Culturally and economically we shall then loose our independence,'' he says.