Foreign Policy

Macron desires a French empire constructed on language

Fifty miles northeast of Paris is a ruined castle that Emmanuel Macron hopes can catalyze an era of new glory for France. Built in the 16th century, the Château de Villers-Cotterêts served two centuries of French kings before it gradually fell into disrepair. During the 19th century it was repurposed as Dépôt de Mendicité, a hybrid hospice prison for the needy, while in recent decades it has become an old people's home. The last residents left the building in 2014, after which the building was abandoned in a damp decay.

In 2018, Macron, newly elected President of France, announced plans to restore the castle and make it an international center for the French language. The French government has provided 210 million euros for the project. The castle is scheduled to reopen in 2022. Work on this target has continued through 2020 and the archaeological excavation, cleaning and decontamination work is expected to be well underway.

Advances in restoration were one of the few bright spots in a year to celebrate the French language. The Organization Internationale de la Francophonie, the institution that represents French on the world stage, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. A detailed annual festival program should culminate this month with a summit of the 88 OIF member states in Tunisia. Due to the pandemic, many of these plans have either been postponed or scaled down and put online. The organization's biennial summit has now been postponed until next year.

Amid the disruption, Macron has advanced ambitious plans to boost the international standing of French and "rebranded" Francophony – a word that denotes both the community of French-speaking nations and the operation to spread and maintain French around the world – an engine of diversity and creativity. However, critics are not convinced that Francophonie can shed the baggage of its colonial history, and the chaos of the OIF anniversary has exposed tensions at the heart of the project to redefine the global mission of the French language.

Defending the UK and Germany in stasis, Macron was not shy about reaffirming France's ambition to lead the European Union. In November, Macron gave an interview to the French foreign affairs magazine Le Grand Continent in which he set out a foreign policy doctrine based on two basic principles: a revitalized multilateralism centered on new poles of power, institutions and forms of cooperation (“The Der UN Security Council today no longer provides useful solutions ”); and a strengthened political Europe that can offer a third avenue to countries unsatisfied with the current range of options for great powers. "We cannot accept living in a bipolar world made up of the United States and China," Macron told students at Vilnius University in Lithuania in September. The sub-text of these comments is clear: France will lead Europe's demand for a multipolar global order.

But if, as Macron hopes, Europe is to have a voice on the world stage, what right does France have to speak on its behalf? France's economy remains smaller than that of Germany, the de facto leader of post Cold War Europe, as does its population for the time being (however, if France holds current growth trends, it will be the largest country in Europe for decades). Macron's argument for French leadership in Europe – and European polarity in global affairs – is closely tied to a resource that gives France a clear advantage over Germany: language.

French is the fifth most popular language in the world, with around 300 million speakers (a number that includes both native speakers and daily fluent speakers), and its future looks bright. Almost half of the world's French-speaking population lives in Africa, the fastest growing continent. The OIF estimates that the French-speaking population could be between 477 and 747 million by 2070.

Africa has been at the heart of France's linguistic dreams since the dawn of colonialism. This is another way of saying that Africa has been at the heart of French colonial dreams since the beginning of French language politics. The term "Francophonie" was coined by the geographer Onésime Reclus at the end of the 19th century, when the struggle of the European powers over Africa began. In the years after France was humiliated by the Prussians in the war of 1870-1871, Reclus wrote mainly about restoring France's reputation in the face of a rising Germany. The goal, as Reclus and subsequent generations of French leaders saw it, was not only to extend the control of France overseas, but also to ensure the longevity of the French nation through the colonial spread of the language.

This was a racist program based on France's Mission Civilisatrice and the historical mythology of the country's particular linguistic genius that French was a language of singular clarity ("What is not clear is not French," 18th century writer Antoine de Rivarol) . Century once declared) and revolutionary potential, the language of human rights and cultural universalism. "As soon as a language has" coagulated "a people, all racist elements of that people subordinate themselves to that language," wrote Reclus. This was a common view of the French intellectuals of the time. The economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu argued in 1874 that "a people puts its stamp on a country and a race through its language". Language was not only indispensable for French colonialism; In many ways, it was French colonialism. France hoped through the power of its conjugations to cement a global hegemony that would make competition on the continent irrelevant.

It didn't go that way, but the echoes of that dream are preserved in the French establishment today. Africa remains essential to French attempts to create a global order more favorable to its own interests, and language is at the heart of that endeavor. In a speech given at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in 2017, Macron invited the Congolese-French writer Alain Mabanckou to lead a special project to explore ways of mobilizing French as the engine of “African creativity”. After considering the proposal for a few months, Mabanckou gave a withering response in Le Nouvel Observateur, which explicitly mentioned the origins of Reclus and Francophonie in the imperial adventurism of the Third Republic. "What has changed since then?" he wrote. "Unfortunately, Francophonie is still seen as a continuation of French foreign policy in its former colonies."

This is not the future that the creators of the institutional Francophonie – including those from the former French colonies – had hoped for. Decolonization-era African leaders were instrumental in founding the OIF, despite opposition from Charles de Gaulle, who wanted to prevent France's overseas rule from becoming fully independent. For heads of state and government such as Habib Bourguiba from Tunisia, Hamani Diori from Niger and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal, the institutionalization of Francophonie by the OIF, whose constitution was officially sealed in 1970, offered a mechanism for their young nations to be on an equal footing with more developed powers to become. Membership in a larger body would allow the former colonies to aggregate their influence on the world stage across politics, economics and culture. Senghor, the most influential of these proponents, initially saw Francophonie as a means of introducing African literature to French universities. He wholeheartedly subscribed to the myth of French as the language of science, analysis and humanism, believing that Francophonie would become a means of mutual exchange between France and its former colonies so that the two "colonize each other." "could, as he wrote in 1962.

Despite these emancipatory origins, Francophonie remains saddled with the perception articulated by Mabanckou. Fifty years after the founding of the OIF, much of the French-speaking world still sees Francophonie as a vehicle for “Françafrique”, the peculiar brand of French neo-colonial interference in Africa, whose main characteristics are corruption, patronage and a studied indifference to all deviations from the democratic ideal .

In his numerous speeches on the subject, Macron has worked hard to dispel suspicions that his “new” Francophonie will perpetuate the client list patterns of the past. While the OIF has taken on a relatively broad mandate in recent decades and promotes economic development, human rights and democracy (often imperfectly, as critics such as Mabanckou have noted) in the manner of a mini-United Nations, Macron wants to steer Francophonie back his original calling. In his view, French should be “a language of the universal, of translation, of authors, of exchange”, as he put it at the last OIF summit in 2018. As opposed to English being the "language of consumption, Macron wants French to be a" language of creation "and although he recognizes the violence that was common on France's behalf throughout the former empire, he believes French as a focal point for linguistic pluralism can serve as a mechanism that strengthens less popular languages ​​- especially the local idioms of Africa – by exposing their cultural assets in translation to the francophone market.

These are speeches that contain both ideas and contradictions. Macron claims that Francophonie has outgrown France and now belongs to all the nations of the French-speaking community: the “epicenter” of the French language, he said in 2018, “is neither to the left nor to the right of the Seine, but without a doubt somewhere in the Congo basin. “However, the intellectual and political leadership of the project is still a French matter. Macron rejects the premise that the success of French must come at the expense of other languages, but harshly criticizes the hegemony of English. He is an advocate of linguistic pluralism, but repeatedly presents Francophonie as a project of "conquest" or "reconquest".

Macron is particularly in love with the old idea that French is the language of "universality". Ignoring his historical association with colonialism, he keeps re-using this cliché to protect it in a forest of allusions to the work of non-French-born authors who wrote in French, such as Eugène Ionesco and Milan Kundera – the equivalent an English-speaking politician who proclaimed the vitality of English with reference to the work of Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov. But in his attempt to maintain balance on this rhetorical tightrope – to condemn the legacy of Francophonie colonialism while pushing the French to idiomatic "recapture" of the globe; to deny competition between languages, even if it promotes something that has historically been linked to the extinction of local linguistic rivals; to promote pluralism and French primacy at the same time; and to re-center the fiction that French is a language of universal rights rather than slavery, absolutism and Vichy collaboration, which is a working alternate description – Macron can simply lead to confusion for everyone, including himself.

Nothing captures France's enduring centrality to Francophonie better than Macron's choice of Villers-Cotterêts, a powerful symbol of French monarchical power, to adorn his planned linguistic renaissance. It was there that François I signed the ordinance in 1539 that made French the official language instead of Latin, setting in motion a process of linguistic centralization and homogenization that contributed to the decline of France's regional languages ​​for several centuries. This desire for uniformity was ultimately carried over to the colonial project; As the linguist Louis-Jean Calvet has shown, French colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean led to a “glottophagy” or the imposition of French to the detriment of the mother tongue.

French language policy has always been a zero sum, and Villers-Cotterêts symbolizes its hegemonic and destructive history. Perhaps this makes the city's royal castle an odd place for Macron to launch its offering for Francophonie as the new global face of linguistic pluralism.

At the moment, the political measures to shape the Francophonie facelift are modest: apart from the restoration in Villers-Cotterêts, Macron has appointed a minister to represent the portfolio and announced plans for a dictionary of Francophonie that pledges to re-join the network of French schools invest abroad and promised that African artifacts housed in French museums will be returned to their countries of origin.

Relatively marginal to the development of these plans was the OIF itself, an absence that may reflect recent instability within the organization. Two years ago, France, the OIF's largest donor, forced Canada's Michaëlle Jean out of general secretary and secured the support of the institution's 54 voting members to replace them with Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's former foreign minister – a change Macron considered Upswing announced for African engagement in the Francophonie. The Mushikiwabo uprising was controversial, however, as Rwanda, under President Paul Kagame, enjoyed poor human rights and a former French minister described the Kagame government's “hostility” to the French language: Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, replaced French with English as The main language of school teaching in 2008 and joined the Commonwealth a year later, despite having no historical ties to the UK. Kagame announced Mushikiwabo's candidacy for the position of OIF General Secretary at a joint press conference with Macron in 2018 and spoke English.

Once on the job, Mushikiwabo wasted no time in ridding the OIF of officials appointed under their predecessor, but bitter, high-profile departures were a continuing feature of their reign. In October, the OIF administrator and deputy, Canadian Catherine Cano, suddenly resigned amid rumors of persistent disagreement at the top of the organization. An OIF spokesman told reporters that Cano was “messy” and difficult to work on, which Mushikiwabo didn't like in Canada, and was still concerned about former Secretary General Jean's sideline. At a moment when Macron needs the OIF to give institutional legitimacy to his major Francophonie rebranding, tension has now arisen with the organization's second largest financial contributor.

These tensions aren't helping Macron's cause, but they're unlikely to throw him off course. A historical guide of French language politics is paranoia. For centuries, as French became increasingly popular, French leaders have imagined that their language was under threat, and the dangers to the republic often come in the form of other languages. In 1794, Bertrand Barère declared before the French Revolutionary Convention: "Federalism and superstition speak Low Breton, emigration and hatred of the republic speak German, counterrevolution speaks Italian and fanaticism speaks Basque." Something of this old linguistic siege mentality has survived today, as Mabanckou stated in his acidic rejection of Macron: “When rethinking the Francophonie, it is not just about protecting the French language, which is in any case not threatened at all, as is often the case in Self-flagellation is explained to a typically French spirit. "

French will most likely continue to grow in the coming decades, regardless of the institutional restructuring that is being committed on its behalf. The challenge Macron has set itself is to make French a passable Trojan horse for France's global ambitions and to disguise a politics of national greatness in the feel-good language of cultural connectivity and inclusivity. So far, the results have not been convincing.

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