News analysis

French as lingua franca of the 'new' world?

France hosted an unusual event yesterday: an international conference devoted to overhauling the promotion of the country's culture and language around the world.

The effort is the brainchild of President Emmanuel Macron, who made the revival of France's international influence one of his key priorities after he came to power last year.

The French also have a perfect instrument for doing so: the Francophonie, an organisation of former French colonies and other French-speaking populations, loosely modelled on the Commonwealth created by the British for their former colonies.

But, like the British, the French are discovering that overhauling international organisations they have created requires a great deal of diplomatic effort and more money than either can afford.

The Francophonie is considerably younger than the Commonwealth, established only in 1970, more than two decades after the British founded their organisation. It is also less overtly political; while Commonwealth summits deal with global governance issues, the Francophonie focuses on promoting language and cultural projects.

The two organisations also vary greatly in size: While, at 84 member-states, the Francophonie is much larger than its 52-strong British counterpart, the Commonwealth has a combined population of 2.2 billion, as opposed to roughly half that number for the Francophonie.

The Commonwealth also includes more prosperous nations than the Francophonie.

Still, the French have one great advantage: Because it is not a political grouping, it is easier for the Francophonie to include countries that were never colonies but where the French language plays an important role. The 2018 summit of the Francophonie will take place later this year in Armenia, a country which was ruled by Russia for centuries, but which has been a member of the Francophonie for 10 years.

President Macron constantly reminds audiences that France has amended its Constitution to make it a national duty to defend the international standing of the French language and culture, and to use the Francophonie for this purpose.

He refuses to accept that French is in inexorable decline as the means of communication around the world. "The potential of the Francophonie is immense. With nearly 275 million French speakers worldwide, France remains a juggernaut in the global linguistic landscape," he said last October.

By the middle of this century, he has said, up to half a billion people could be speaking French as more or less a mother tongue, largely because the biggest population growth is anticipated to come from Africa, which accounts for around 85 per cent of French speakers.

The conference was a platform to discuss ideas harnessed from months-long consultation with academics, educators and politicians. "This is not at all a defensive policy I want to present here," he said.

Nevertheless, with most of its member states poor, the Francophonie relies on France's impetus for many of its activities, much more than the Commonwealth relies on Britain.

As a result, President Macron is under pressure to offer the Francophonie more resources, precisely at a time that France is trying to cut government spending.

Still, there are plenty of innovative ideas. France's state-owned broadcaster is doing well on the Internet, albeit not always in the French language. Online French language courses are also thriving in places where French culture was not previously dominant, such as the Gulf. And much more can be done by providing "seed money" to local projects in Africa.

One thing is certain: The promotion of their language is dear to the hearts of most French men and women. Just ask President Macron, who recently decided to conduct international media interviews in English: He faced outrage back home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'French as lingua franca of the 'new' world?'. Print Edition | Subscribe