On 28 November, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his desire for the French language to reassert its global influence. His words come at a time when battles are being fought over its integrity back home.
At a speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Macron proclaimed that,
“The radiance, the attractiveness of French does not just belong to France … French will be the first language of Africa … perhaps of the world.”
This is a troubled time for the French language, with debate raging at home over whether French is “sexist”, and Macron himself coming under fire for speaking English at diplomatic gatherings.
Can it overcome these obstacles and challenge the English language’s dominance once more, both on the African continent and worldwide?
Is France’s image in Africa waning?
The British press was quick to pick up on one particular element of Macron’s speech. The Times and The Independent both declared that it is Macron’s quest to reclaim the global linguistic hegemony that French once enjoyed.
However, the President’s aims are likely to be more local. Despite accusations by many anti-colonial activists and scholars that France “never left” Africa, its influence in the region has been on the wane for decades.
Macron seems acutely aware of this, as he maintained in his speech that he did not want French to be a mere colonial relic: “It is not just a heritage to be protected. It has a future and this future is playing out in Africa.”
With the population explosion set to take place in Africa this century, Macron has spied an opportunity. Figures from the French National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) suggest that the population of francophone Africa is set to triple to 750m by 2050, compared to around 274m in 2014.
The Congolese capital, Kinshasa, has more French speakers than any other city apart from Paris with eight million. Locking these speakers into France’s cultural orbit appears to be a strategic imperative for Macron.
This was the apparent logic behind the appointment of Leïla Slimani, a young, Moroccan-born, award-winning author, as his Francophone Affairs Minister on 6 November. Slimani “represents the open face of Francophonie to a multicultural world”, said a presidential spokesperson.
Fighting on many fronts
The necessity to double down on these cultural assets has become evident. While Paris continues to maintain strong military and diplomatic links to a multitude of African nations, at the economic level it now faces stiff competition from China – as well as growing demand for English language education.
This latter case was best exemplified in Rwanda when, in 2008, President Paul Kagawe overhauled the country’s entire education system from French to English in order to make itself more attractive to international investors.
France will be keen to ensure that the same does not occur in Cameroon. Eight protesters in the English-speaking region of the country were shot dead by government soldiers in October.
The English-speaking minority in Cameroon have began a movement for independence after being excluded from top jobs in the civil service, as well as having the French language imposed upon them.
A wider move to assert French influence
The speech in Ouagadougou plays into Macron’s evident ambitions for France’s role on the world stage. He has made several key speeches on furthering EU integration; has personally travelled to Libya in order to try and broker a deal to halt the flow of migrants into the European Union; and has taken a lead on attempts to halt climate change following the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.
In France’s former colonies and overseas territories, he was a visible presence on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Saint Martin following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma, and has also been playing the role of peacemaker in Lebanon following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri under suspected pressure from Saudi Arabia.
Was his real target the domestic French audience?
Nevertheless, if the French language is to become a key pillar in Elysée foreign policy, then it will have to fight off savaging attacks on the domestic front regarding its ‘inherent sexism’.
Earlier this month, the French version of Slate magazine published a manifesto signed by hundreds of academics condemning the gendered nature of French. The document’s proponents are exasperated by its elevation of the masculine at the expense of the feminine.
In French grammar, a mixed gender group always takes the male plural form. For example, even if there is only one male player (joueur) and ten female players (joueuses) on a football team, the eleven players are collectively referred to as joueurs (the masculine plural form), rather than joueuses.
This campaign has been given prominence in light of the worldwide #metoo campaign, that has highlighted men in powerful positions abusing their authority for sexual favours. The implication is that the French language is inherently sexist, reinforcing gender imbalances.
The solution, according to the campaign, is to use the median-period, or mid-dot, in order to highlight that a group is mixed-gender. A group of primary school teachers, comprised of instituteurs and institutrices, until now referred to as instituteurs, would become instituteur·rice·s.
This clunky proposal has caused uproar. Philosopher Raphaël Enthoven called the new grammaral structure “an attack on syntax by egalitarianism, a bit like the Mona Lisa being slashed with a fair-trade knife”.
This comes as it emerged that the Académie Française, the gatekeeper of the French language, announced that it was considering adopting a number of female nouns after 20 years of opposition. As such, in the court room we may soon see la juge replace le juge, and a female prosecutor referred to as “la procureure“, not “le procureur”.
Intriguingly, the English language is simultaneously seeking to move in the opposite direction. A growing number of institutions now refer to female screen stars as “actors” rather than “actresses”.
Taking egalitarianism to the world
Any rule changes will be transferred to the legions of workers that staff the lycées and Instituts Français across the globe.
These institutions are the beating heart of Macron’s campaign to revitalise French in Africa. Whether this new gender neutral French will ever make it to Africa is not only contingent on the outcome of the linguistic debate in French, but also these institutions receiving adequate funding.
This then, was probably not the ideal week for many of these teachers to go on strike, protesting against budget cuts.