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Vietnam opens summit of French-speaking nations

November 14, 1997
Web posted at: 10:18 a.m. EST (1518 GMT)

HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- The first summit of French-speaking nations to be held in Asia got under way on Friday, as members of 47 nations gathered in Vietnam to discuss improving their economic and cultural ties.

Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong opened the Francophone summit, greeting more than 2,000 delegates as they arrived for the meeting at the newly renovated Friendship Palace in Hanoi.

Flags of all 49 Francophone members, including the absent Congo and St. Lucia, were put up outside the building.

The participants were also welcomed by a group of Vietnamese children who spoke in French and wished the summit success. The boys, dressed in shirts and bow ties, and the girls in silk traditional Vietnamese trousers and tunics, then sang a song in French hailing friendship.

This is the first international summit Vietnam has held, and the first time the Francophone has been held in Asia.

Little French spoken in Vietnam


Among the leaders speaking at the summit was French President Jacques Chirac, who praised Vietnam's hosting of the summit.

"Our passionate ties, both in good times and bad, today are blossoming into a rich and confident dialogue," he said.

The French, who colonized Vietnam in 1884, lost to Vietnam on the military battlefield decades later, leading to French Indochina's breakup in 1954. And today, English more than French is the country's unofficial second language -- even Luong required simultaneous translation during the summit.

In fact, less than 1 percent of Vietnam's 77 million people speak French with any degree of proficiency, and most people in that tiny percentage are older Vietnamese who remember French colonial rule.

Chirac warned in his opening remarks against a unilingual world, where English hegemony would limit cultural creativity and variety.

"Our common goal should warn of the risk of a world where people speak, think and create within only one mold," Chirac said. "Use of the French language has diminished in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos."

The Francophone was originally founded for the purpose of preserving the French language.

But in recent years, many countries, including host Vietnam, have put a growing emphasis on multilateral economic and trade ties over language questions. Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world, despite spectacular growth in the past decade following the launch of free-market reforms.

Secretary-general to be elected

Among those attending the summit are Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, Prince Albert of Monaco, and former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Boutros-Ghali is expected to take a special role in the organization in the future. Although some African nations object to his appointment, he stands unopposed for the position of the Francophone's first official secretary-general. He is expected to be elected during the three-day summit.

The Francophone is not expected to yield any major resolutions. But some touchy issues, like Vietnam's human rights record and its production of land mines, are likely to come up.

While a sensitive issue like human rights is on the agenda, the current situation in Iraq is not. With Chirac and two former U.N. secretary-generals in attendance, those discussions are most likely taking place in private.

Correspondent Tom Mintier and Reuters contributed to this report.

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