Francophonie is a term that emerged in the 1950s and has two main meanings. The primary one designates the grouping of peoples and communities throughout the world with French as their maternal or customary language. In its second sense, the term has come to mean an increasingly large and complex network of private and public organizations promoting special ties among all Francophones.

Except for international institutions created and run by France, such as Alliance française (1883), International Francophonie is relatively young. Truly multilateral associations devoted to closer ties between francophone groups began to appear shortly after WWII, eg, la Fédération internationale de la presse de langue française (Paris, 1948), l'Association des universités partiellement ou entièrement de langue française (Montréal, 1961) and l'Institut international de droit d'expression française (1964). These are all private bodies, although they often benefit from government subsidies. The private sector of International Francophonie continues to develop rapidly. There are some 50 international French-language federations, communities, academies, associations and institutes working to increase co-operation in many different fields.

In 1967, elected members of some 20 national parliaments met as delegates in Luxembourg to set up the Association internationale des parlementaires de langue française. Two years later, an international conference in Zaire brought together an equal number of ministers of education, this time officially representing their governments. However, a permanent body was not formed until 1970, when ministerial delegates from 21 countries met in Niamey, Niger, to found l'Agence de coopération culturelle et technique (today the International Organisation of La Francophonie), an international organization devoted to multilateral governmental co-operation.

ACCT brings together French-speaking states whose mutual goals include the development of culture, education, science and technology. The first full-fledged meeting of the ACCT was held in Paris 1986. In 1987 delegations from members and nonmembers that met at Québec City were Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso [Upper Volta], Burundi, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Djibouti, Dominica, Egypt, France, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Laos, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Monaco, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda, St Lucia, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, Vietnam and Zaire. Two Canadian provinces, Québec and New Brunswick, have the status of participating governments. At this summit, Canada announced a contribution of $17 million to assist new and existing projects in French-speaking Africa and debt forgiveness of $325 million in loans, affecting African nations. The next summit is to be held in Senegal in 1989.

The comparison is often drawn between Francophonie and the Commonwealth. The similarities are evident: each includes developing and developed countries; each consists largely of former colonies, most of which achieved independence after WWII; finally, each has the same general objectives of mutual assistance, co-operation and development in all fields. But Commonwealth structures are very different from those adopted by Francophonie. Despite much discussion of the idea, for example, there is no equivalent in Francophonie of the biannual summit meetings held by the heads of state of Commonwealth countries. Canada has been active in international Francophonie since its beginnings, in both public and private sectors.

On 30 November 2014, Michaëlle Jean, former governor general of Canada, was appointed secretary general of the International Organisation of La Francophonie during the 15th summit of French-speaking nations in Dakar, Senegal. Not only is the first female to head the La Francophonie, she is also the first Canadian.