Back in 2012, The Economist published a thought piece on global languages — or, more specifically, which languages one should learn to become a more global citizen. While Chinese, Hindi, or English might make obvious choices given the sheer quantity of native speakers across the globe, author Robert Lane Greene, an acclaimed journalist and linguistic scholar, takes a different view. “Forget Chinese or Hindi,” the article tagline reads, “If you want to learn a language which is truly global, learn French.”
A prescient publication, given that six years on, French President Macron has vowed to make French the most widely spoken language in the world. With 275 million Francophones worldwide, French currently ranks sixth highest among languages with the largest number of global speakers — following Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic.
On March 20 of this year, International Francophonie Day, Macron laid out plans to improve the global standing of his mother tongue. Among them, he hopes to increase the use of French online, invest significant funding into French teaching, and double the number of students in French schooling abroad. Despite Macron’s ability to switch between French and nearly flawless English, impressing international audiences, he wants to educate more European officials in French to “loosen the grip of the English language on Brussels.”
Much of Mr. Macron’s interest in expanding the reach of what he calls “the language of freedom” stems from concerns over the expanding influence of English in prominent European institutions. Where French was once preeminent in Brussels, the tendrils of the anglophonic world have wriggled through the corridors of the European Union headquarters, most significantly after Eastern European nations joined the bloc in 2004.
La Francophonie, an international organisation and alliance of nations where French is an official or widely spoken language, has been a pillar of French diplomacy for decades. The group boasts a membership of 58 nations — nearly one third of all world countries, not including the additional 26 observer states. While 29 nations list French as an official national language – most French speakers in these countries comprise minority populations, as seen in Switzerland, Canada, and in West Africa. Other member states may not endorse French as an official language, though it is nearly universally understood among educated classes, as in Morocco and Lebanon. Membership of La Francophonie extends as far as Southeast Asia in Vietnam and Cambodia where administrative use of the language still remains. Even Egypt, thanks to Napoleon’s travels across North Africa, maintains membership with a not-insignificant French speaking population.
Without a doubt the heart of Macron’s attention rests in Africa, where French is an official language in dozens of countries. Focusing his efforts on Africa’s youth, he addressed university students in Burkina Faso last November highlighting that, beyond culture and sport, the French language is what intimately united the room. He expressed hope that French would become the most common language in Africa – and perhaps the world “if we play our cards right in the coming decades,” he said. That vision, he noted, would rest on the shoulders of African youth: “I urge you to make the language come alive.”
Macron’s efforts have been the subject of some criticism—most notably from Francophone journalists with African heritage—pointing to what they view as thinly veiled imperialism. Some maintain that the culture of La Francophonie reinforces classist divisions and provides African dictators with a foothold.
Macron’s defence to these critiques was simple and diplomatic in tone: he insisted that France saw itself as merely one “French speaking country among others” in the Francophone world. He noted that while French is the official language of France, “for a long time now, the French language, our language, is not only French.” Macron also highlighted the contribution of bestselling French-speaking African authors whose work has contributed to the diversification and prosperity of French literature across the globe, calling for the expansion of such works into the French academic curriculum – where they are currently absent.
Macron has also received support from other prominent African writers. Véronique Tadjo, an acclaimed French-speaking author from the Ivory Coast, stressed the importance of the French language for African cohesion. To some degree, Africa is already poised for significant French linguistic expansion. With growing populations, a projected 700 million people will speak French across the world by 2050 — over 80 percent of whom will reside in Africa. Already, more people speak French in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, than in Paris.
Last November Macron appointed Leïla Slimani, a young, award-winning French-Moroccan novelist, as Francophone affairs minister, the country’s representative in charge of promoting French language and culture throughout the world. Slimani expressed her intentions to modernise and leverage French to advance “human rights, gender equality, and the defence of democracy.”
Revisiting The Economist article, Greene argues the benefits of understanding and speaking the French language are vast. Aside from being critically important for diplomacy and global commerce, understanding French is supremely culturally enlightening: “It can enhance your enjoyment of art, history, literature and food… It has native speakers in every region on earth.” French culture certainly captivates a global audience; the heartland, after all, consistently draws millions more tourists annually than any other nation on earth.
As President Macron forges ahead on a series of intense domestic reforms to reshape France’s geopolitical arena, it is clear that the French language is in no danger of disappearing.