Relaunching French –a very messy business

By Alessio Colonnelli, April 28, 2018

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière

By 2050, Africa will be home to 85% of all French-speakers. Consider: more people speak French in Kinshasa, Congo's capital city, than in Paris.

When France’s president Emmanuel Macron appointed prominent, Morocco-born author Leïla Slimani as his personal representative with a wide remit as Francophone affairs minister last November, perhaps he didn’t initially grasp the full extent of his own linguistic proposal.

His campaign to revive Molière’s language – and open up France to writers who use French worldwide – has unwittingly triggered an ongoing cultural war. Consider: more people speak French in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital city, than in Paris.

Touring the world
Macron has been promoting his language on travels to Asia, the Middle East, Ghana (English-speaking but surrounded by French) and Tunisia, where he said he would like to see twice as many people learn French by 2020.

Not just there. “English has probably never been as present in Brussels as at the time when we are talking about Brexit,” Macron said in March. “This domination is not inevitable. It’s up to us … [to] make French the language [giving one] access to a number of opportunities,” he continued, underlying Europe’s relationship with French-speaking Africa.

Macron, who unlike his predecessors makes great use of English when abroad, claimed this was a move towards further multilingualism and not to compete with English. An all-round, thought-out project; or so it seems. Reactions have been prompt.

Linguistic millenarianism
“The apostle of a decentralised francophonie,” a headline by Libération said in a mocking tone. Elsewhere for the same paper, a collective of bloggers from Congo wrote that “[French] is the only (official) language that unites the Congolese without referring them to their ethnic or tribal origins, without dividing them … It can evolve, and adopt turns of surprising sentences, but it is nonetheless our common language. It is all the more dispiriting to observe the shallowness with which French presidents have abused this linguistic proximity for the short-sighted pursuit of France’s interests”.

This is sharp criticism that Macron perhaps did foresee, at least intuitively. In fact, he not only sought Slimani’s engagement; but he wished to get the much-acclaimed novelist and UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou on board as well.

It didn’t work out as he hoped. Mabanckou – also from Congo – replied to Macron’s warm invitation with an open letter to Le Nouvel Observateur where he denounced La Francophonie – the French-speaking sphere Macron is trying to revitalise – as a late nineteenth-century neo-colonial construct: a platform that has allowed dictatorships to thrive by always giving them a chance to refresh old alliances or establish new ones. Directly or indirectly.

This institution, Mabanckou maintained, is “a continuation of French foreign policy,” which shores up African despots and categorises French-speaking authors as exotic “otherness”. In his view, the solution is a partnership in the French-speaking world led by civil society and intellectuals to protect local African languages and be more supportive of freedom of travel.

Writer Alain Mabanckou at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2017. Wikicommons/ Harald Krichel. Some rights reserved.
“The French literary world clings to a Paris-centric vision,” Mabanckou also crucially said; it fails to view writers from former colonies as part of mainstream literature, a mistake UK publishers don’t make any longer. Parisian editors and academics, by treating non-French writers as “Francophone”, still stick to age-old, neo-colonial arrogance towards them and, in doing so, claim exclusive ownership of the French language.

Back to Europe
Some like-minded thinkers such as the Johannesburg-based Witwatersrand University professor of history and political science Achille Mbembe – with whom Mabanckou wrote a second letter – find it rather depressing that the Francophone equivalent of the battle Salman Rushdie fought 30 years ago – against the concept of “Commonwealth literature” – still has to commence.

If the relaunch of French is to be set in a plurilingual framework, as Macron and Slimani have lately confirmed, promoting regional languages within France ought to be made a priority too. First do at home what you preach abroad – and only then look across the Mediterranean. Interestingly, Welsh started regaining traction at the time when the talk of Commonwealth writers began to peter out.

Breton, Corsican, Catalan and Occitan still suffer at the hand of Paris’ centralist policies. Their compound number of native speakers has dramatically gone down. Young people in Corsica tend to speak their parents’ language only if they really have to – if they can at all.

Same thing along the Rhine, where German has been crippled and reduced to a foreign language understood by ever fewer individuals. Failing to do anything about this would make a universal proposal sound terribly insincere.


Article courtesy of Open Democracy

Alessio Colonnelli has written for The Independent, Prospect, Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Little Atoms, International Business Times, Aspen Review Central Europe, Labour List, Left Foot Forward and the LSE blog Euro Crisis in the Press. He’s worked in London, Madrid and Barcelona in media and education, and holds a master’s degree in languages and literary translation from Padua University, Italy. He blogs here.

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