Are we turning into a French-speaking planet? That was the surprising possibility raised by President Emmanuel Macron on a recent visit to Burkina Faso. “French will be the first language of Africa,” he said, plausibly, before adding, “perhaps the world.” Ah, oui? C’est vrai?
No, this is preposterous, and therefore very French. It’s true that a 2014 study (by, coincidentally, a French investment bank) did indeed suggest that French could be the most spoken language of the world by 2050 — assuming enormous population increases in Africa. But, given that French is currently the first language of only 75 million people, most observers still bet on English or Mandarin Chinese. Macron’s real message, perhaps, was simply that France is important — because talking up the French language has always been a proxy way of talking up the importance of France itself.
France’s postcolonial equivalent of the Commonwealth is explicitly a language-based club: the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (international organisation of the French-speaking). In 1966, Charles de Gaulle set up a high commission for the “defence and expansion” of the French language, subsequently replaced by a series of similar committees focusing on “correct” French and its use overseas.
And, of course, there is the Academie Francaise, created in the 17th century to protect French from the noxious influence of Italianisms, but which today sees global English as the great enemy. It continues to issue fatwas against English loan-words such as “e-mail” and “weekend”, and called the proposal to allow some university courses to be taught in English “linguistic treason”.
Of course, a fair amount of modern English itself derives from post-conquest Norman French. This was perhaps the reasoning behind Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s quip that “English is just badly pronounced French”. But for French people, the English language is also typified by the boorish native Anglophone who cannot converse in any other tongue. As the French writer on language Claude Gagniere observed: “A man who speaks three languages is trilingual. A man who speaks two languages is bilingual. A man who speaks one language is English.” He would perhaps have approved, at least, of the doomed efforts made by Mark Twain, who wrote: “In Paris they simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
It’s not that French is dead or even dying on the global stage. French is still one of the official languages of the UN, Nato, the International Olympic Committee and Eurovision. But the days of its global pomp, when it was the language of international diplomacy and spoken by much of the global elite, are long gone. The family of the writer Vladimir Nabokov spoke French as well as Russian at home. And it has had champions among other non-French literary giants. Joseph Conrad, who wrote novels in his third language, English, once said he ought to have chosen French instead, while Samuel Beckett switched to writing in French because he thought it a clearer instrument. It is difficult to imagine Jonathan Franzen doing the same thing today.
Macron’s dream of a mainly French-speaking planet almost certainly won’t come to pass, but its invocation is a clever rhetorical gambit: it implies a new swashbuckling spirit in France, conveniently represented by the president himself, as well as perhaps a sly assertion of increased French strength within the EU as Germany struggles to form a government.
But the departure of Britain from the EU will probably fail to help the status of French as an official language. When I visited the European commission recently, it was explained to me with regret that English is already the lingua franca in EU business because it is everyone’s second language. When a German woman and an Italian man meet to discuss EU business, English is the obvious choice. Indeed, without the obstreperous presence of the UK in the union, there will be less of a political reason to resist it.
No matter, though. We admire the French — do we not? — precisely for their lovable self-importance. And French will always retain its allure to literary and romantic types. It is still the language of elan, of insouciance, of existentialism. As Evelyn Waugh said: “We are all American at puberty. We die French.” Perhaps if Macron’s dream of the global primacy of the French language doesn’t succeed in this world, it will in the next.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Steven Poole is the author of Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas