PARIS: French President Francois Hollande on Friday begins a visit to Guinea, making him the first Western leader to travel to a country hit hard by the deadly Ebola virus.
Guinea has already lost 1,200 people to the disease which has killed over 5,600 in total and infected almost 16,000, mainly in west Africa, according to World Health Organization figures.
The visit, the first by a French president since 1999, is a bid to deliver “a message of solidarity” to Guinea as it battles the worst outbreak of Ebola since the virus was discovered in 1976.
France has pledged 100 million euros ($125 million) as a contribution in the fight against Ebola, focusing its efforts on Guinea.
The money is due to help with financing several care centres in Guinea as well as funding 200 beds, some of which are reserved for health workers caring for the sick.
France has also pledged to set up two training centres for health workers, one in France and one in Guinea. In addition, French biotechnology companies will set up rapid diagnostic tests in Africa.
During the trip, Hollande was due to visit healthcare facilities, participate in a round-table discussion on Ebola as well as hold talks with his Guinean counterpart Alpha Conde.
After the one-day trip to Guinea, Hollande travels to Dakar to take part in a summit of French-speaking leaders that is likely to be dominated by the Ebola crisis as well as the recent unrest in Burkina Faso.
The OIF (International Organisation of French-Speakers) is expected to appoint a successor to former Senegalese leader Abdou Diouf.
However, there is no clear front-runner from the five main candidates, with a French government source telling AFP: “Anything could happen, including a last-minute candidate.”
The OIF was founded in 1970 with the ambition to be a “French Commonwealth”, a rival to the mainly English-speaking group of countries that are predominantly former British colonies.
But it is battling to find its relevance and retain its funding at a time when many governments find their budgets under pressure. France reduced its funding for the group by 20 percent this year.
French is currently spoken by close to 274 million people, with more than 50 percent of those in Africa — the 5th most spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic or Hindu depending on how it is calculated.
By 2050, the percentage of French speakers based in Africa is due to rise to 85 percent, with 700 million Francophones expected on the continent by then.