French is the language of emancipation, says President Emmanuel Macron
“Ambition for the French language and multilingualism” – Speech by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, at the Institut de France for International Francophonie Day.
Paris, 20 March 2018
French in the world
It’s with great humility that I’ve come to this place today, to try to talk to you about Francophonie. I say “with great humility” because the last time I spoke about it was at a university in Ouagadougou; some people who were with me may remember it. And I had absolutely no success; it was in a broader speech about Africa in which I was trying to cover many thoughts about the future of what France can do there and the issues we have to raise there. And it was probably when I talked about Francophonie that most misunderstandings arose. I was facing some young students who clearly didn’t understand what I was saying or who, to be more precise, said to themselves, “he’s talking about something that means nothing to us, he’s talking to us from a place or a language that doesn’t mean the same thing”.
Gabriel Faye – who has shown repeatedly that he knows how to speak and write French – probably gave me the answer earlier when he told us that in his native Bujumbura, when people talk about Francophonie, the image comes to mind of a photograph of a French president with African presidents. Well, believe me, that’s not the image I’ve come to talk to you about today, and instead I’d like to try and put it out of my mind, because today – from Maradi to Seoul, from Yaoundé to Ulaanbaatar, from Nouméa to Buenos Aires, the world is humming with our language. It resonates through its literature, its poetry, song, theatre, cinema, culinary art, sport, philosophical debate and oratory, and all over the planet today, on this chosen day, the French language expresses the world, and we must untangle it from the images in which it has momentarily forgotten to do so. It describes the world’s tiniest facet, conveys its roughness, delves into its conflicts, tells all its stories, weaves its tale among individuals who are separated by oceans, deserts and traditions and who, in the crucible of the French language, come together and understand one another.
What we call Francophonie today isn’t a vague area on the periphery of France – France which is supposedly its centre: it’s the French language itself which has become the centre of all the nations and peoples where it’s taken root in its astonishing variety. That’s what the French-speaking world is: a human continent that accepts a shared grammar as its constitution, a syntax as its articles of law and a vocabulary as its civil code. And today, armed with this, hundreds of millions of people face up to the world, experience it and recount it in what Salah Stetie calls “the other language”, which, he adds, he doesn’t ultimately know if he chose. And today France must be proud to be one country among others that learns, speaks and writes in French, and we must also think in terms of this shift from the centre.
Our French language, so often still represented as a rectilinear garden, has become a shared place that has gradually embraced the planet’s inflexions. The words of Edouard Glissant resonate here, indicating the world as the object of poetry: the evolving world, the world that shakes us up, the world that is a mystery to us, the world we want to enter. Ultimately, French has been emancipated from France, it’s become a language world, a language archipelago, because other languages talk to one another on vast continents and hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens share them, but there are few languages that talk to one another in this world archipelago of ours.
Over the centuries, the French language has become the language of the dominators, then of the oppressed; it’s what prevents us from sinking into inertia, incommunicability and isolation when war, violence and barbarity emerge. It allows us to describe an experience of the world that could have remained buried, like the Eel Under Rock in Ali Zamir’s stunning story. By making the language of the colonists their own, by stating that social and political submission could find an outlet in the language of the rulers – a language reshaped, taken in hand again, modelled and infused with a different experience –, former colonial subjects have also given our language that experience of suffering which enriches our vision and finds paths to reconciliation in imaginary worlds that everything could have led to conflict.
Before them, those who were persecuted, excluded and uprooted – from Heinrich Heine to Paul Celan – found their voice in the French language, but it would be arrogant to say that French is only that language of freedom. No: we’ve tortured in French, we’ve done marvellous things in French, and we’re still doing marvellous and terrible things in French. There are always tyrants who practise tyranny in French, and loving French doesn’t exempt them from their responsibilities, but I believe French has always contained a desire for freedom – probably still unaccomplished –, the destiny Abbé Grégoire spoke about in 1794, the ambition Stetie also talks about: the desire not to give in.
So memories have blended together, the wounds of some have become the wounds of others, and we’re working in the same language to bandage our wounds, by crossing the threshold of oblivion mentioned by Assia Djebar in The Disappearance of the French Language. The French language today is driven by this huge momentum towards freedom; it’s the language of fighting for emancipation, the language of the non-aligned spoken about by Abdou Diouf and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It’s also the language of journalists, opposition activists, bloggers, poets, and so many countries where people fight for freedom in French.
Because speaking French, even in countries that were never colonies, also means flatly contradicting a system presented as inevitable. It means seeking one’s oxygen in texts and memories always celebrated by those with independent minds who reject conventions. And sometimes, through the accident of our shared histories, our geographies, we’ve shared that language. That’s why we admire the battle of the Quebeckers, the Belgians, the Swiss and the Luxembourgers to champion French. But we’re also struck by those countries in Europe, America and Asia which, while never having been officially French-speaking, are equally fervent supporters of a French language that holds up a mirror where they see their humanity, grasp the world and hear its whispers. To speak French, to write it, is to enter a vast community of experiences and visions.
French in France
And yet, while I talk about our language archipelago, here I am with you in this place. And I’m here because the Académie française was a seminal place for this vast adventure of the French language. Our language didn’t have a single founding act but several: from Charlemagne in 813 to Louis XII in 1510 and above all François I, who in 1539 decided that French would be the kingdom’s administrative language, through the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. In abandoning the Latin of the clerics, François I opened the door to a genuinely national language, shared and understood by everyone; he gave shape to the French language’s characteristic goal of building bridges between classes and conditions. The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts also devised a civil state – in other words, it gave every French person a documented, certified, official existence, an existence lived and read in French.
Those who claim Villers-Cotterêts wasn’t the birth certificate of French as the language of France are probably right historically, but they’re wrong on the cultural and political levels, because the ordinance had a symbolic scope that still resonates with us today. Ten years later, with his A Defence and an Illustration of the French Language, du Bellay set out a literary birth certificate for French. Male poets, and female poets like Louise Labé, invented new tones and colours for it, and less than 100 years later the Académie française was born, created not to govern French but to ensure its rules would be tailored for usage and that the language wouldn’t be prey to the few but an asset for everyone, in the same founding spirit as François I.
The Académie was conceived in order to protect the language from inevitable power grabs by those who want to subject it to their political or dogmatic agenda and make the language not a living, breathing entity but a tool subordinate to the plans of a few. The founding idea was that the French language wouldn’t really live unless priority was given to usage, and so the rules had to be observed and protected against the précieux and précieuses (1) of every era, who are still with us today. That’s what giving the language special dignity is about; it means being highly conscious of it in such a way that it’s not reduced to a communication tool but is the very substance of what makes us human.
The future of French
Today we’re determined to show confidence in our language, because we’re on the threshold of a new moment in our history and our language’s history. We’re going from the old idea of a French-speaking world that lay on the margins of France to a conviction that the French-speaking world is a sphere of which France – with its own responsibility and historic role – is only a part: active, proactive but aware that it doesn’t uphold the destiny of French alone.
Jean Rouaud has expressed the situation in glowingly optimistic terms: “now freed from its pact with the nation,” he writes, “liberated from its original source, autonomous, freely chosen, back in its old stomping ground, nourished by other adventures, no longer having any scores to settle with the language of the former masters, the French language once again has its own interpretation to offer of the world, a world seen from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, China or Iran, North America or Vietnam – aware that without a story there can be no understanding of the world”.
So to make this story a success, I want to thank Mme Leïla Slimani, who has done a considerable amount of work over several months and coordinated what she’s just reported on, a method consisting in asking all those who so wish to express their ideas for Francophonie. The ministers present here will each have to lead that work in their field, but it hasn’t been thought out solely from one place in Paris; it was the fruit of shared work, fed into by many voices on every continent. Today, if we want to respond to this great story, this interpretation of the world that we want to and can promote, we must, in a way, succeed in learning, interacting and creating in French. In a few moments I want to come back to these three areas and discuss them with you.
Learning to speak and write French means, first of all, establishing throughout the French-speaking world the constitution that unites us and brings us closer together. In the relationship to a language lies a relationship to an authority: it has its rules, and a language allows liberties – many of you are marvellous embodiments of this –, but it doesn’t exist unless we first agree to submit to its rules, unless we accept its primary authority and the way other men and women have used it, which has gradually settled, whose history we can retrace or in which we can lose ourselves.
It’s a huge challenge, and we won’t address it unless we can get a new, radical, ambitious generation to rise up, a generation of those very special heroes we call French teachers. You’ll tell me that, on this issue, I’ve got a kind of biographical conflict of interest that could lead to my judgement being clouded. I won’t be able to deny it, but I nevertheless want to say that our whole history, the history of our country, was created by those heroes and by our ability to promote French, including in the lands where our language was in decline; we managed to do it thanks to those heroes, French teachers.
Whenever we’ve closed down a class or decided we can do without a teacher, French has retreated. And whenever we’ve thought we can let a teacher go or no longer train the teacher, French has also retreated. The French teacher is the central figure who forges the mind, sensitivity, memory and curiosity, because grammar, vocabulary, etymology and very often literature are the fertile ground where our lives take root. The French teacher is the guarantor and engine of the French language’s very vitality. We all know what a debt we owe to those who wake us up and throw us, sometimes against our will, into the twists and turns of grammar and the vast spaces of the novel and poetry, nurturing in us what was still confused and latent. So our first and greatest responsibility is to lend prestige to the teaching profession, and especially the French-teaching profession.
And learning French means, first of all, learning it in France, and we can’t make any proposals for the French-speaking world unless we can look at our own imperfections, our own shortcomings, and sometimes our own steps back. That’s why, from the beginning of the five-year term, we decided that we did sometimes have to restore rules, reopen classes and reduce the number of pupils per class in those places in the Republic that are in greatest difficulty, where all the difficulties have been concentrated and where French has been in decline. Last September, in these areas of so-called priority education, the Minister of National Education opened CP classes [for ages 6-7]; CEI classes [for ages 7-8] will follow, and then others, in order to reduce the number of pupils per class, to tackle head-on what had become a widespread but unacceptable fact: that one child in five arriving in CM2 [classes for ages 10-11] in our country couldn’t master either language, arithmetic or writing as they should.
So we restored teachers and a few rules, restored assessments – without which you can’t measure whether you’ve learnt or not – and also succeeded, I believe, in making everyone aware again, above all parents, that language speaking is acquired through effort, through work. Together with the Minister of National Education I’ll be continuing this task, because it’s still not over, but in this way we’ve put schools and teachers back at the centre of this battle for French.
Learning French, of course, also means reading, and that’s what the Minister of National Education and the Culture Minister have been promoting since the beginning of the school year, and we’ll be continuing it. Reading means entering the substance of the language, but also its memory and imagination; it means devoting a period of solitude to what will bind us more strongly to others and the world. Reading will be central to education – that’s begun: the number of books provided each year will increase still further, and exercises will therefore continue. Exercises that enable children to forge close contact with the language will be increased in number, from dictations to speeches, from reading aloud to song, from recitals to considerations of the roots of words; in France this involves a determined revitalization of the ancient languages which are the very crucible of our language and from which this very authority I was talking about derives.
Reading will again become central to learning, particularly in districts where we let it retreat, where the French language itself has fallen into disrepair. We can no longer be the country where those backward steps are accepted. Reading at school means reading in French. It means reading French literature, which I want back in its rightful place, instead of substitutes, which we’ve too often been satisfied with. In particular, I want pupils to reconnect with entire works – too often split up into extracts – and with the pleasure of reading, which isn’t always compatible with overly formal exercises and also allows them to get lost in lengthy passages because those are part of the relationship with the book.
Reading today also means literature written in French in the four corners of the world. I’d like French-language authors to be taught in French schools even if they’re not French or of French origin. That’s how France’s pupils will learn to taste the flavour of their language, including the brilliant writings of Ahmadou Kourouma, Driss Chraïbi, François Cheng, Milan Kundera, Hampâte Bâ, Aimé Césaire, Nimrod and so many others present here. So I’ve decided that 20 March will, from now on, be dedicated to the understanding of French-language literature in schools.
Reading also entails having a place to read; it’s true there are schools, but there are also libraries. In this regard, of course, the recommendations drawn up by Erik Orsenna and Noël Corbin in their report, submitted to the Culture Minister a few weeks ago, will be followed scrupulously, because sometimes finding the library closed when you’re going home in the evening, or when only one or two days are made available to parents and children, means sending those who may have had the most right to it away to a place where calm and intimacy don’t exist, depriving them of a place of exchange, of happenstance or encounter, of sharing literature and experiences of words. Opening libraries is a battle for emancipation; opening them in towns and villages where it makes sense, where it’s wanted, championed by elected representatives, mayors above all; opening those libraries means enabling children who have no books in their families, children who can no longer work alongside their family, to have access to books, to the tranquillity that goes with them, to silence, to discussions they want; it means putting an end to the idea too many people may still have in their minds that it’s not for them; libraries are the nerve centre of this individual education.
French for refugees
This duty to learn French in France becomes all the more crucial when we have to welcome men and women driven away by war and give them a destiny within our national community. I see no better residence permit for them than the French language, and that, too, is where they’ll enter the nation, where they’ll find their rightful place. And if we don’t give them that chance, if we don’t give them that opportunity to enter our country through and in the language, what place do we intend to give them? Today, refugees have the right to a maximum of 250 hours of French lessons; I challenge you to learn French in 250 hours.
This amount will be increased to 400 and even 600 hours for the most vulnerable people and those most cut off from French society who master neither reading nor writing; we’ll support voluntary organizations and educational establishments by providing them with their own certifications, and also by putting reference libraries and multimedia reference libraries in every town, because the French language isn’t merely an integration tool: it is integration. And here I pay tribute to the work that several voluntary organizations present here are doing every day for refugee children from Georgia, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria; in a few days, in a few weeks, some of them will play Racine’s Britannicus. That’s worth as much as any number of titles and papers.
I want to promote, in the same way beyond our borders, this requirement we’re championing on our national territory, because it’s France’s responsibility to keep the diversity of our French language alive and benefiting people, not as an agent of our colonial empire, as some claim, but because we believe in our language’s destiny, in what it conveys, in what it says about the world where we live, without any overbearing attitude. That’s why, in the same way, France has committed itself especially to education and teacher training. Those two battles are decisive.
I’ve wanted France, in the action it carries out internationally – and the Minister and I have constantly promoted this – to reaffirm, through its official development assistance, its strong commitment to education, particularly the education of girls, which is currently in decline in every land where terror is on the increase and obscurantism is seeking to gain the upper hand. So we must fight by investing, which France will do in the framework of the Global Partnership for Education, but also in its bilateral aid for education, and girls’ education in particular in Africa and especially in the Sahel.
We’ll also fight for teacher training, because it is important to continue backing, in this respect, every initiative which supports a good education in France accessible to everyone, and in particular with the roll-out of the teacher support programme, Apprendre [“Learn”], in every country of Francophone Africa, in conjunction with the OIF [Organisation internationale de la Francophonie – international Francophone organization] agencies, the creation of a fund to improve accessibility to teaching resources, the French Education Ministry and its agencies’ active efforts to propose innovative tools for initial and further training, and increased bilateral activities conducted by our embassies.
The strategy presented today, which the ministers will be very keen to explain in detail, will be based on initiatives which will complement these tools and the outstanding work the OIF has conducted on the subject. So we shall be putting in place an international volunteer scheme for French in priority countries and doubling the number of civic service missions as regards this crucial issue. We’ll assist the Fédération internationale des professeurs de français [international French teachers’ federation], also supported by the OIF, to work in this framework.
But this work will also have to give new impetus to French lycées. France has 500 schools [outside France] in the world today, catering for 350,000 pupils. It forms the backbone of our education provision across the globe. It will be consolidated and boosted to safeguard its long-term future and meet growing demand. Resources will be maintained. In the summer, the Minister will propose a strategy to involve the private sector more effectively, and here I want to thank all the states supporting this work. I had the opportunity to say this to Your Royal Highness yesterday, but I want to say to you here, to thank you in particular for your choice of our French lycée in Luxembourg and the investment you decided to make, with your government, so that we can continue being there.
We’re also going to develop the partner institutions with the goal of doubling the number of pupils entering the French school system between now and 2025. Regional training centres will be created to train new teachers, for example, in Mexico and Lebanon. And everywhere I go, I’ll methodically pursue partnership strategies – the Minister, Minister of State for Francophonie and I are tirelessly conducting these – which consist in forging partnerships so that in each country’s education system, there is more and better French teaching and we can help with these investments, but they’re chosen by each country.
Apart from our schools, Francophone bilingual programmes are in fact in high demand abroad – from New York’s Lafayette Academy to Guangming lycée in Shanghai and the 18e lycée in Zagreb. To support their development, the Agency for French Education Abroad’s mission on this will be bolstered. The goal is that by 2022 the network of schools offering good Francophone bilingual sections which have the “France Education” label will comprise 500 schools, compared to 209 currently.
In the field of higher education, I’d also like our schools to venture beyond our borders and group together in campuses, as in Morocco and Senegal, and Tunisia tomorrow with the future Franco-Tunisian University for Africa and the Mediterranean. The aim is to double the number of pupils taking these courses by 2022. The Minister, too, will have to conduct this strategy, as she’s started doing, and the major Francophone universities’ conference and the conference in Paris this May, 20 years on from the Bologna Process, will put joint degrees – the number of which I also want doubled – at the heart of discussions.
We can succeed in this challenge if we decide to invest in it again and demonstrate this proactiveness. But without being present through teachers, our schools, the partnerships and our universities, we won’t succeed in ensuring that French is learned properly. For this to happen, we also have to provide smooth reception arrangements for foreign students who come to learn in France. In her scathing book, La préférence nationale, Fatou Diome humorously recounts the humiliations of a Senegalese student financing her studies by doing housework. We can no longer be that country where foreign students have to face an uphill battle, whose twists and turns Fatou Diome describes with dark humour. There’s going to be a sharp rise in student mobility numbers in the world in the next few years. France will have to increase the number of foreign students on its territory, and the number of those from emerging countries will double because the French language is an asset we share. There will be more Indian, Russian and Chinese students, and so there should be.
We must now do everything in our power to overhaul the conditions in which they are received. So I’ve asked the Minister of Higher Education to draw up a comprehensive plan with the support of Campus France. This plan will be presented at the start of 2019. In the same spirit, a Maison des étudiants francophones will be created at the Cité internationale universitaire de Paris. Construction will start in the autumn and the Maison will offer 150 places for the best students from the Francophone world. Learning French in our country, in places where we’d sometimes abandoned it, learning French in the French-speaking world and elsewhere is thus the basis, the bedrock on which we can build.
The world today, on 20 March, may be humming with the French language to an almost dizzying extent, but it echoes to the sound of all other languages too. Everyone expresses themselves in them all the time through ever more powerful technology, bringing to light unknown terms, giving a powerful boost to established ones. And the French language is often jostled by other languages which seek hegemony. Moreover, it has waned over the past few decades because we’ve at times abandoned it, because we’ve decided to stop investing in it. In the Middle East and Asia, it’s important to acknowledge that 15 or 20 years ago, speaking French was natural; that’s no longer completely the case.
World role of French
This is why the second objective, the second challenge is to make French a major language of exchange, communication and, in a way, make the language a non-hegemonic means of exchange – I’ll come back to this – and also create a useful purpose for the French language, an effectiveness, offering the possibility of access to something. French is this language which must allow access to jobs and other opportunities, to linguistic and geographical worlds which make it possible to communicate, share information, question, work and access opportunities. So we’ve got to think through and present – and this is the deep-rooted, fundamental ambition of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie – this ambition to have a useful, effective French language as well, and we must fully embrace this.
Of course, this battle is being played out in large part on the web. French people are doing quite well and are represented there. French is the fourth most important language online. On Amazon, books in French come third, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve got to be satisfied with the situation. The Francophone world must more clearly assert its strengths, and the battle on platforms and social media is both a political and cultural one. This is why Francophone universities must make academic content and resources for research and teaching available online more quickly. We’ll encourage the universities of the Francophone world to develop massive open online courses with the expertise of France Université Numérique.
The Institut français is tasked with deploying French teachers from social networks on a massive scale by targeting 150 countries and 75,000 members by 2021. We’ll expand links between people on the Francophone web and further develop cooperation and joint projects. We’re going to put in place the first incubator dedicated to language learning, the Fabrique numérique du français. To do this we’ll be bringing together engineers, researchers, linguists, artists and innovative companies, coordinated by the Institut français, with a project which, with the advent of artificial intelligence, is aimed at not leaving that new vast area in the hands of the English or Chinese speakers.
Indeed, through these initiatives, we must promote French, French content, academic and scientific content, and the presence of all speakers on the web. From now on, the French language must be at the forefront of the most innovative technology, otherwise it will fast be excluded from those languages finding a way into new forms of communication.
This battle is also one which has to include our media firepower. France is lucky to be able to rely on a powerful institution: France Médias Monde. You only need go abroad to appreciate how influential it is. It broadcasts to 135 million people every day. We’ve got to raise our ambition and reach over 150 million in the next two years. And I would also like all our French and [other] Francophone media to give more thought to how they project themselves beyond our borders, their international resonance, through television and radio, but also online.
We have good-quality newspapers, strong brands. They already have a presence abroad, but we can be more ambitious and the State will support this newly thought-out ambition because it means there’s the possibility of promoting what we create in the arts and journalism and Francophone content, all of which say something about this interpretation of the world which I mentioned earlier; they view the world in a certain way, a critical way – including, incidentally, when it comes to the very policy conducted by France in some of those places and all those regions. But it’s essential.
And this concern is closely tied up with our battle against fake news and for a free, independent press. French-language media must appear trustworthy, because that’s what they are. They could even establish the certification that Reporters Without Borders very much wants to see. In this respect, AFP can play a central role because its global network is exceptional. Entering into an alliance on the subject with the mainstream Francophone media would be a huge asset. We could also involve the mainstream European media in this challenge, thus forging a totally new alliance between Europe and the Francophone community and a global ambition at a time when information too often serves vested interests or hegemonic agendas. But that’s reality.
And so we mustn’t be naïve about this in any way. The Culture Minister will have to put forward an important piece of legislation concerning a tiny part of this in France during election campaign periods. But there’s a whole vast area – the status of information, truths and counter-truths. It exists and is shaped through languages, and I think it’s a challenge the Francophone media are equal to. Training information professionals within the Francophone community is a matter of urgency if we want to avoid these agendas being imposed on everyone. Canal France International, our media cooperation agency, will increase its activities in the priority Francophone areas, particularly Lebanon, the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa, to increase the media’s capabilities in the digital sphere in particular. The training of journalists, which will be doubled, will be one of its major pillars, and the French language the glue that holds it together, because providing information and having discussions in French makes sense, probably even more so today than yesterday.
But across this vast global forum, there’s an area which the Francophone world must win back: the economy. Talking about the way of this exchange in French, about the access I mentioned earlier, also means talking about the economic world. When I went to Davos, I spoke in English first, then French. Some people would have preferred it if I’d spoken only in French, but speaking in English in a forum which brings together the business community is first of all useful, and shows that French is built through this multilingualism, this ability to speak the language of others, including when that language has become dominant, occasionally with the aim of being hegemonic, in the business world, but [it’s] also to bring those who speak English back to the French language when we need to talk about the values which guide us and about our view of globalization.
So there is indeed a French-speaking economic world which we must once again embrace, whose vibrancy we must rediscover, that dynamism which Jacques Attali, in his 2014 report, proposed to promote through several measures, which are still relevant today. The solution is never to force a language on people or play on rivalries between languages. The solution is to enable the plurality of languages, particularly with regard to trade. That is why, in addition to the mother tongue, I want two foreign languages to be taught across Europe, because English should not be the only foreign language spoken by Europeans. Similarly, I want our business schools to attract more foreign students and help inject new momentum into French as a business language. Companies too must step up to the plate.
The temptation to make English the working language must be replaced by efforts to encourage multilingualism and intercultural exchanges, without which companies themselves will be overwhelmed by linguistic and hence cultural uniformity, which largely runs counter to the modern world. And we will support companies on this issue, once again with offers of certification. These are some of the ideas which have been passed on, and employers’ associations, chambers of commerce and the diplomatic network will be involved in this development.
Victor Hugo, who believed that French would become the language of Europe, would today perhaps be a little disappointed. But it’s up to us to take action so that the French language and multilingualism regain their rightful place at the heart of this economic Europe, this Europe of business and this Europe of European institutions. That’s why we are also increasing our language training provision, first and foremost for European officials. There will be a special focus on Brussels, in collaboration with our Belgian partners, because we’re living through a paradox, the slightly untimely nature of which you will today experience. English has probably never been so prevalent in Brussels at a time when “Brexit” is on everyone’s lips. But this domination is not inevitable – we simply need to apply a few rules, return to certain places and make French a language through which we can access the opportunities I have outlined.
The entire European official development assistance and cooperation strategy is based on and around this French-speaking world, and the French language, like no other, gives large swathes of Africa access to economic opportunities throughout the Mediterranean. This language of transmission, because it was built via multilingualism, this language which provides access, must therefore be acknowledged, presented and explained as a language which enables these opportunities to be built and thus from which we can learn in this regard.
And ultimately, that’s why when I talk about usage, when I describe French as a language of transmission, I must talk about multilingualism and translation. In essence, we are the only Francophone country in which French is the only language spoken. Francophonie, if it tells us anything – and I haven’t tried, there are greater experts than me, to say who is Francophone or not –,French speakers benefit from the wealth of several languages. Only French people speak only French. And the French language teaches us one thing: that we exist only in this multilingualism. Our strength is to think up these transitions. Our strength, and it’s here that perhaps we see Victor Hugo’s dream through a form of historical ruse, our strength is that we’ve always been first and foremost a language of translation. That’s what Umberto Eco meant when he said that the language of Europe is translation, and it’s why we must continue and step up our efforts in this area.
The national translation prize is an important event which highlights and promotes the essential work of translators. I want us to go further, to support our publishers in this essential work, to continue publishing translations into French, particularly from languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian, as I said in Frankfurt a few months ago. But I also want us to translate from French into these languages so that, as Dany Laferrière said recently, French can be spoken in all languages, with the same intonations, and in full awareness of this plurality.
The Francophone world must provide space for other languages, particularly other European languages, but also any language weakened or isolated by globalization. The Francophone world is where the memories of languages are not lost, but rather move freely. And so our goal is to keep translating more and more, both from and into French, to be a crossroads which makes us part of Francophonie, but also to defend languages such as Wolof, Mandinka, Basaa, Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, all Creole languages – Mauritian, Guadeloupian, Haitian, Martinican, Reunionese – languages which, like French, unite millions of speakers across borders and help spread knowledge and culture.
When I was in Ouagadougou, if those young people didn’t understand or want to understand, it was because they thought I was defending French against their language. French can develop only as part of this multilingualism, within these constant translations. So we must also publish dictionaries in all these languages, encourage our diplomats and our citizens to learn them, in the same spirit of hospitality from one language to another, and accept that these languages which enrich our view of the world indeed exist and must be fully recognized. For example, the delightful word “sikidilatif”, meaning “instilling hope”, is from the Kikongo language. And let us once again read the works of Maryse Condé or the stories of Nathacha Appanah to realize the importance of dialogue between these languages. All this is part of communication, exchanging ideas in a language and we must thus make this effort to regain full use of it.
French must become the language which describes tomorrow’s world. Even better, it must be the language which creates tomorrow’s world, so creation in French must be our third challenge. The Francophone world has seen colonization, decolonization, the pretences of an often toxic relationship with the former colonial powers, then creolization, the gradual emergence of this world language, this world literature whose special energy was perfectly described by Alain Mabanckou, who invited us to “follow in the footsteps of this world literature in French, to sketch out its twists and turns, to look at it in a broader context, more spread out, more resounding – in essence, the world”. Although French has not become the language of Europe as Hugo dreamed, it is more than that, it is a language in which the wider world is built, this “reassembled language” Quebec poet Gaston Miron describes, which can now embrace the wealth and variety of the world while never abandoning its many roots in a world where, ultimately, the main threat is uniformity or perhaps the “insignificance” depicted by Castoriadis.
The French language also has an unrivalled depth and wealth of meaning because it’s in a state of constant disquiet with other languages, in coexistence with other languages, because it has itself experienced this state of disquiet within France. And this was at the heart of the first battles at the Académie française. We have never been a fully independent or totally hegemonic language. That is what makes French such a rich language and why creativity has a special place in our language.
The mission of Francophonie isn’t subject to the Cartesian framework of a political programme – it moves beyond everything seeking to contain it. The boom in arts and literature in Francophone territories is today the only programme that matters, so I’m not going to say that I propose a policy of creativity within the French-speaking world. There are too many men and women here who are showing their creativity in, through or with the French language to accept such a top-down approach. Our role, rather, is to make this creativity possible, to support it, to make the seeds which have been planted sprout, to share what is already ripe and to ensure that from Paris to Niger, from the Congo River Basin to the Caribbean and the Pacific, this vitality exists and flourishes.
To achieve this, we must build connections, and create bodies which are more closely aligned. This is the purpose of the mission I have given to Leïla Slimani. Her role alongside me is to link up, connect, converge, and thus identify and sense the processes under way, to pick up on the smallest signals and understand the emerging trends. For [the concept of] Francophonie to spread, I’d like to create what we might call a “College of Francophonies”, which would build partnerships between the académies of Francophone countries, in which your académie would play a leading role, and which could meet at least annually to accomplish the inspiring mission of collating the wide diversity of usages, helping to compile not only French-language dictionaries but also dictionaries with these other languages, and ensuring that this multilingualism which radiates across all continents goes from strength to strength.
I’d also like to see conferences held on publishing in the French language in order to decompartmentalize the French-language publishing industry and promote copyright transfers between different Francophone countries. We spoke about that earlier. This may not appear to be a very important issue, but it is. Everywhere outside of France where people want to read in French, there are copyright transfer issues. There is the problem of the cost of books when it comes to accessing books in French, and so we need to work to solve it. At the 2018 Saint-Malo Étonnants Voyageurs Festival we will suggest a first meeting in this series of French publishing conferences. In opening up our publishing market to the wide range of literature in French, we can create this large body of French-language works and ensure that our children, lycée pupils and libraries can access these different literary works in the French language without really discriminating between them.
And I remember what the young Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr said a few weeks ago: “When I was 16 years old, I read Le Pére Goriot in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and I was blown away. It’s what made me want to become a writer.” A French writer! And I hope that in the future, in a little village in Corrèze or Alsace, a young boy or girl will be able to dream of becoming a writer when reading Hampâté Bâ or other such authors. I believe this is possible. So these are the bridges and connections that we intend to build between peoples of the French-speaking world through creation and innovation.
French language institutions
I’d also very much like to see France become fully engaged in this work by creating a specific place for it. I assure you, this will not be a place that competes with your Académie. That would be impossible and I would never come here to tell you such a thing. No, a place for all forms of Francophonie. Some months back, before I had taken office, I went to Villers-Cotterêts in the last weeks of my presidential campaign and Villers-Cotterêts is of course the city where the royal ordinance that I mentioned earlier was signed. It is also the city where Alexandre Dumas was born to a father who was a freed mixed-race slave who became a soldier for France. It’s said that he went to Paris on foot when he decided to become a writer. And today it’s a city that has doubts, and has been rocked by the huge changes in the world and has sometimes heeded siren calls to turn inward. The château where the ordinance was signed has fallen into ruin and you can no longer go inside.
I’d like to make this château into a Franchophonie lab. The CMN [National Monuments Centre] has agreed to support this Herculean task. It will be a place for exhibitions, encounters, research, education, a residence for artists and researchers, a place for work, discovery, creation, writing and performances. This extremely symbolic place will illustrate the energy of Francophonie and inject fresh impetus into a region in difficulty and new vigour into those who are rebuilding their pride.
Beyond our borders, we must also restore our influence and our ability to take action. That’s why the Institut français will be bolstered in its role as an agency that promotes and disseminates the French language in the world. In Paris, the Institut français and Alliance française will be moved to the same premises in order to improve synergies between those who support the French language, and the network of Alliances françaises will open 10 new centres a year starting in 2019. A few weeks back, with the Minister, I reopened the Alliance française in Tunisia and if I remember correctly, it had not been in operation since 1948. I’d also like to see the funds allocated to these institutions fully protected.
Recently, M. Thioub, the rector of Chiekh Anta Diop University in Dakar, asked me about this. He told me that the Institut français in Dakar is rightly situated next to the French Embassy in a neighbourhood that has become calm and where less goes on than a few decades ago. We therefore need to find the right places and call upon our cultural diplomacy network to seek out people where they are, in neighbourhoods sometimes far from the centre, in the places where real lives are being led, because gone are the days of a cultural diplomacy confined to beautiful neighbourhoods and located in official buildings. I also appreciate that in Casablanca, our Institut français does not hesitate to work in the poor neighbourhood of Sidi Moumen, where the perpetrators of the 2003 attacks are from, to support artists such as Nabil Ayouch and Mahi Binebine who are working hard to offer the most vulnerable young people music, dance, theatre and film education and French and computer classes.
Francophonie must be able to reach these new publics, reach out to those who don’t come to us in rural regions, out-of-the-way neighbourhoods and working-class areas where the desire to learn French and speak many languages is strong, where creativity is exceptional and where innovation is popping up at every turn. This is especially true when it comes to theatre and film. The Institut français will encourage new dramatic works in French, their translation into vernacular languages and their dissemination by creating a specific fund. I therefore assigned the French Development Agency a new mandate so that in 2018 it would begin supporting cultural and creative industries in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean. Ten initial projects focused on publishing, film and music. The CNC [Centre national du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée] will create a fund to support creative film projects by young people in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa and will establish a co-production programme with Morocco and Tunisia.
We need to have the will to foster this creativity in the places where it is being expressed and enable it to bloom, because we have all been drawn into this powerful movement of young people who are taking their destiny into their own hands and who are dreaming of their future in French. This commitment to creativity in the French language is one that we owe to Francophonie.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, is not any just any other day. The buzz that has spread as far as the place we are today is a global buzz. We are hearing a voice that, day after day, is building the future and narrating the future. We recognize its intimate cadence, its profound prosody. We are uncovering the secret because this global buzz speaks our language. I am told that more than 700 million men and women in the world will speak French in a few years’ time. This shared treasure, whose value some of us have sometimes lost sight of, is once again becoming the beating heart of history, because the battles we are fighting are at the heart of history.
But this French I’ve told you about, this French in France, this French in countries which are officially Francophone, this French that is spoken in all of these countries which love it, have decided to adopt it, or have forcibly embraced it, this geographical French is still more narrow than this mental Francophonie, which, if I may say so, is much broader. I have not forgotten that Turgenev said he thought in French, and Leonardo Sciacia said the most beautiful love story he’d ever had was Stendhal. Yet both wrote in their own language. There are more people than just those in the French-speaking world who relate to the French language.
I remember Isaac Babel recalling his French classes in Odessa and his passion for Flaubert and Maupassant. Nothing would have brought him to love Flaubert and Maupassant so passionately had he not had a teacher from Brittany at his secondary school in Odessa. “He was from Brittany and he had a flair for literature, as do all of the French,” said Babel. What I’d basically like to say to you, even if I haven’t managed to convince you this evening, is that there is, beyond all of these battles, something more that explains the passion of these men. There’s the fact that French is a language that expresses emotion and struggle, a language that is surely doomed to be restless because it is never finished, and a language of exile, of wounds. But it’s the language we were given and the language I love. That’s my last argument to defend the cause.
Deep down, for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt emotions while reading them [books] even before experiencing them myself. I’m convinced that I got to know the Creuse region in central France before visiting it because of Pierre Michon. I sincerely believed that I was able to describe autumn thanks to Colette, and I can tell you everything about the heat of nights in Provence because I have read Giono. That’s what the French language is, and it takes many hours to learn it. Mistakes must be made. It must be translated and retranslated. It requires all this, but that doesn’t take away from the special relationship each of you has with the French language, which is resolute. And in the end, therein lie the treasure of our language, the wealth of your Académie and the beauty of the battle we’ll continue to wage. It will never be a hegemonic language because it’s a language of struggles and restlessness, because it will continue to be a language of translation and etymology, and because however many dictionaries we write, they will always need to be rewritten. Thank you.
(1) Préciosité, or preciosity, was a style of thought and expression exhibiting delicacy of taste and sentiment, prevalent in 17th-century French salons. Many mocked the “precious” writers for their pedantry and affectation.