LONDON - France is hosting an unusual event on Wednesday (Feb 14): 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, which the British created for their former colonies.
But, like the British, the French are discovering that overhauling the international organisations they have created requires a great deal of diplomatic effort and more money than either former colonial power can afford.
The Francophonie is considerably younger than the Commonwealth. It was established only in 1970, more than two decades after the British founded their organisation. It is also less overtly political; while the British Queen remains the head of state of 16 out of the Commonwealth's 52 member-states and Commonwealth summits are very much about dealing with global governance issues, French presidents exercise no comparable functions in the Francophonie and, traditionally, France preferred to conduct political and security links with its former colonies on a bilateral basis, leaving the Francophonie to deal with nurturing cultural projects.
The two organisations also vary greatly in size: while at 84 member-states the Francophonie is much larger than its British counterpart, the Commonwealth has a combined population of 2.2 billion people 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 with their Francophonie: because it is less overtly political, and more explicitly devoted to protecting and promoting the cultures of its member states, it is easier for France to push for the inclusion of many countries which were never French 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.
An enthusiastic Francophonie supporter, President Macron constantly reminds audiences that France has amended its own constitution to make the defence of the international standing of the French language and culture a national duty, and to use the Francophonie for this purpose.
Mr Macron also refuses to accept the pessimistic stance adopted by many previous generations of French politicians, who seemed to have accepted the French language being 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," Mr Macron claimed in a major speech he devoted to the subject last October.
He is determined to revive the Francophonie as the instrument which can achieve this objective, and the conference is intended to discuss ideas harnessed from a months-long consultation process among academics, educators and politicians. President Macron is also keen to dispel any idea that this is merely an attempt to save a declining French language and culture; by the middle of this century, he reminds audiences, up to half a billion people around the world 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.
"This is not at all a defensive policy I want to present here," said Mr Macron about Wednesday's gathering.
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. And despite Mr Macron's optimistic narrative, the reality is that the Commonwealth does not even have to think about either the promotion or defence of the English language.
As a result, President Macron comes under pressure to offer the Francophonie more resources, precisely at a time that France is trying to cut government spending. The Alliance Francaise, the 834-strong global network of excellent French schools around the world, is thriving, but the network is now expected to recoup most of its costs from its students. French government subsidies have largely been eliminated, and government funding for broader overseas cultural programmes has been cut by 10 per cent over the last five years.
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 unexpected 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.