Argument

Macron Wants a French Empire Built on Language

Can France’s president redeem a language of colonialism to project global power today?

France's President Emmanuel Macron gives a speech to unveil his strategy to promote French as part of the International Francophonie Day before members of the French Academy (Academie Francaise) and other guests at the French Institute on March 20, 2018 in Paris.
France's President Emmanuel Macron gives a speech to unveil his strategy to promote French as part of the International Francophonie Day before members of the French Academy (Academie Francaise) and other guests at the French Institute on March 20, 2018 in Paris.

Fifty miles northeast of Paris sits a ruined château that Emmanuel Macron hopes can catalyze an era of fresh glory for France. Built over the course of the 16th century, the Château de Villers-Cotterêts served two centuries of French kings before gradually falling into disrepair. During the 19th century it was repurposed as a dépôt de mendicité, a hybrid hospice-prison for the destitute, while in more recent decades it became a retirement home. The last residents left in 2014, after which the building was abandoned in a state of damp decay.

In 2018 Macron, newly elected as France’s president, announced plans to restore the château and turn it into an international center for the French language. The French government has set aside 210 million euros for the project, with the château due to reopen in 2022. Work toward this goal has continued through 2020, and archaeological excavations, cleaning, and decontamination operations are now said to be well under way.

Progress on the restoration has been one of the few bright spots in what should have been a year of celebration for the French language. The Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the institution representing French on the global stage, marked its 50th anniversary this year, and an elaborate, year-long program of festivities was due to climax this month with a summit of the OIF’s 88 member states in Tunisia. Owing to the pandemic, many of these plans were either shelved or scaled down and moved online; the organization’s biennial summit has now been moved to next year.

Amid the disruption, Macron has pushed ahead with ambitious plans to boost the international standing of French and “rebrand” Francophonie—a word used to denote both the community of French-speaking nations and the operation to spread and maintain French throughout the world—as an engine of diversity and creativity. But critics are not convinced Francophonie can shed the baggage of its colonial history, and the chaos of the OIF’s anniversary has exposed tensions at the heart of the project to invest the French language’s global mission with fresh purpose.


With the United Kingdom defenestrating and Germany in stasis, Macron has not been shy about affirming France’s ambition to lead the European Union. In November Macron gave an interview to French foreign affairs journal Le Grand Continent in which he set out a foreign-policy doctrine based on two fundamental principles: a reinvigorated multilateralism, centered on new poles of power, institutions, and forms of cooperation (“The U.N. Security Council no longer produces useful solutions today”); and a strengthened, political Europe that can offer a third way to countries not satisfied with the current menu of great-power options. “We cannot accept to live in a bipolar world made up of the United States and China,” Macron told students at the University of Vilnius in Lithuania in September. The subtext of these remarks is clear: France will be the leader of Europe’s push for a multipolar global order.

But if Europe is to have one voice on the world stage, as Macron hopes, what claim 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, for now, its population (though if current growth trends hold France will become the largest country in Europe within the next few decades). Macron’s case for French leadership of Europe—and European polarity in global affairs—is intimately bound to one resource with which France enjoys a clear advantage over Germany: language.

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

Africa has been at the heart of France’s linguistic dreams since the early days of colonialism, which is really another way of saying that Africa has been at heart of France’s colonial dreams since the early days of French language policy. The term “francophonie” was coined by geographer Onésime Reclus at the end of the 19th century, as the European powers’ scramble for Africa was getting under way. Writing in the years following France’s humiliation at the hands of the Prussians in the war of 1870-1871, Reclus was chiefly concerned with restoring France’s prestige in the face of an ascendant Germany. The goal, as Reclus and subsequent generations of French leaders saw it, was not only to expand France’s control of overseas territory, but to ensure the longevity of the French nation through the colonial propagation of language.

This was a racist program premised on France’s mission civilisatrice and the historical mythology of the country’s special linguistic genius, according to which French was a language of both unique clarity (“What is not clear is not French,” 18th-century writer Antoine de Rivarol once declared) and revolutionary potential, the language of human rights and cultural universalism. “As soon as a language has ‘coagulated’ a people, all the racial elements of that people subordinate themselves to that language,” Reclus wrote. This was a common view among French intellectuals of the time. Economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu argued in 1874 that “it is by its language that a people puts its stamp on a land and a race.” Language was not just indispensable to French colonialism; in many senses it was French colonialism. By the power of its conjugations France hoped to cement a global hegemony that would render competition on the continent irrelevant.

That’s not exactly how things worked out, but echoes of this dream survive among the French establishment today. Africa remains essential to French attempts to engineer a global order more favorable to its own interests, and language is at the heart of this drive. In a speech delivered at Burkina Faso’s University of Ouagadougou in 2017, Macron invited Congolese-French writer Alain Mabanckou to lead a special project to examine ways to mobilize French as a motor of “African creativity.” After thinking the proposal over for a few months, Mabanckou delivered a withering reply in Le Nouvel Observateur that made specific mention of Reclus and Francophonie’s origins in the imperial adventurism of the Third Republic. “What has changed since then?” he wrote. “Unfortunately, Francophonie is still seen as the continuation of France’s foreign policy in its former colonies.”


This is not the future that the creators of institutional Francophonie—including those from France’s former colonies—had hoped for. African leaders of the decolonization era were instrumental in the establishment of the OIF, despite the opposition of Charles de Gaulle, who wished to prevent France’s overseas dominions from becoming fully independent. For leaders such as Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba, Niger’s Hamani Diori, and Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor, institutionalizing Francophonie through the OIF, whose constitution was formally sealed in 1970, offered a mechanism for their fledgling nations to gain an equal footing with more developed powers. Membership of a larger body, the thinking went, would allow the former colonies to aggregate their influence on the world stage, across politics, business, and culture. Senghor, the most influential of these advocates, initially saw Francophonie as a vehicle to introduce African literature into French universities; subscribing wholeheartedly to the myth of French as a language of science, analysis, and humanism, he felt that Francophonie would become a vehicle of mutual exchange between France and its former colonies, that the two could “colonize each other reciprocally,” as he wrote in 1962.

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

In his many speeches on the subject, Macron has worked hard to dispel the suspicion that his “new” Francophonie will perpetuate the clientelist patterns of the past. Whereas in recent decades the OIF has taken on a relatively broad mandate, promoting 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 to its original vocation. French, in his view, should be “a language of the universal, of translation, of authors, of exchange,” as he put it at the last summit of the OIF in 2018. In contrast to English, the “language of consumption,” Macron wants French to be a “language of creation,” and while recognizing the violence that was often done in France’s name throughout its former empire, he believes French can serve as a rallying point for linguistic pluralism, as a mechanism that strengthens less popular languages—especially the local idioms of Africa—by exposing their cultural goods, in translation, to the Francophone market.

These are speeches dense with both ideas and contradictions. Macron claims Francophonie has outgrown France and now belongs to all the nations of the French-speaking community together: The “epicenter” of French, he said in 2018, “is neither on the left or the right of the Seine, but without doubt somewhere in the basin of the Congo River.” But intellectual and political leadership of the project is still very much a French affair. Macron rejects the premise that the success of French must come at the expense of other languages, but he is sharply critical of the hegemony of English. He’s an advocate of linguistic pluralism, but repeatedly presents Francophonie as a project of “conquest” or “reconquest.”

Macron is particularly enamored of the old idea that French is the language of “universality.” Ignoring its historical association with colonialism, he puts this cliche to work over and over, sheltering it within a forest of allusions to the work of authors not born in France who wrote in French, such as Eugène Ionesco and Milan Kundera—the equivalent of an English-speaking politician proclaiming the vitality of English by reference to the work of Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov. But in his attempt to maintain balance on this rhetorical high wire—to condemn Francophonie’s legacy of colonialism while pushing French toward an idiomatic “reconquest” of the globe; to disavow competition between languages even as he advances a cause historically associated with the extinction of local linguistic rivals; to promote pluralism and French primacy at the same time; and to recenter the fiction that French is a language of universal rights rather than, say, slavery, absolutism, and Vichy collaboration, which is a working alternative description—Macron may simply end up confusing everyone, himself included.

Nothing captures the enduring centrality of France to Francophonie better than Macron’s choice of Villers-Cotterêts, a powerful symbol of French monarchic power, to ornament his planned linguistic renaissance. It was there that François I, in 1539, signed the ordinance mandating French, rather than Latin, as the official language of government, thus setting in train a process of linguistic centralization and homogenization that contributed, over several centuries, to the decline of France’s regional tongues. This lust for uniformity eventually carried over into the colonial project; as linguist Louis-Jean Calvet has shown, French colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean led to “glottophagie,” or the imposition of French to the detriment of native languages.

French language policy has always been zero-sum, and Villers-Cotterêts symbolizes its hegemonic and destructive history. This makes the town’s royal château perhaps an odd place for Macron to launch his bid for Francophonie to be considered the new global face of linguistic pluralism.


For now, policy action to give shape to Francophonie’s facelift remains modest: Apart from the restoration at Villers-Cotterêts, Macron has appointed a minister to represent the portfolio, announced plans for a dictionary of Francophonie, pledged to reinvest in the network of French schools abroad, and promised that African artifacts housed in French museums will be returned to their countries of origin.

Relatively marginal to the elaboration of these plans has been the OIF itself, an absence perhaps reflecting recent instability within the organization. Two years ago, France, the OIF’s largest funder, forced Canadian Michaëlle Jean out as secretary-general, securing the support of the institution’s 54 voting members to replace her with Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s former foreign affairs minister—a change Macron heralded as a boost for African engagement in Francophonie. But Mushikiwabo’s elevation was not without controversy, given Rwanda’s poor human-rights record under President Paul Kagame and what one former French minister described as the Kagame administration’s “hostility” to the French language: Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, replaced French with English as the primary language of school instruction in 2008, and joined the Commonwealth a year later, despite having no historical ties to the United Kingdom. Announcing Mushikiwabo’s candidacy for the position of OIF secretary-general at a joint press conference with Macron in 2018, Kagame spoke in English.

Once in the job, Mushikiwabo wasted no time clearing the OIF of officials appointed under her predecessor, but bitter, high-profile departures have been a continuing feature of her reign. In October the OIF’s administrator and second-in-command, Canadian Catherine Cano, quit suddenly amid rumors of persistent disagreement at the top of the organization; an OIF spokesperson told reporters Cano was “chaotic” and difficult to work with, which did not endear Mushikiwabo to Canada, still sore over the sidelining of former secretary-general Jean. At a moment when Macron needs the OIF to lend institutional legitimacy to his big rebrand of Francophonie, tensions have now emerged with the organization’s second biggest financial contributor.

These tensions don’t help Macron’s cause, but they are unlikely to throw him off course. A guiding historical thread of French language policy is paranoia. For centuries, even as French expanded in popularity, France’s leaders have imagined their language to be under threat, with dangers to the Republic often taking the form of other languages. In 1794 Bertrand Barère declared before France’s revolutionary Convention that “federalism and superstition speak Low Breton, emigration and hatred of the Republic speak German, counter-revolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque.” Something of that old linguistic siege mentality survives today, as Mabanckou noted in his acid rejection of Macron: “Rethinking Francophonie is not only about protecting the French language, which in any event is not at all threatened as is often declared in a typically French spirit of self-flagellation.”

French, in all likelihood, will continue to grow over the decades ahead, regardless of the institutional shuffling committed in its name. The challenge Macron has set for himself is to build French into a passable Trojan horse for France’s global ambitions, disguising a politics of national grandeur in the feel-good language of cultural connectivity and inclusiveness. So far, the results are not convincing.

Aaron Timms is a freelance writer covering politics and culture. Twitter: @aarontimms

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