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Macron unveils plan to spread French language

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French President Emmanuel Macron in Brussels in February REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

French President Emmanuel Macron was to unveil plans to boost the number of French speakers in the world to 700 million in a speech in Paris on Tuesday. With its young and growing population, Africa is key to his strategy but some intellectuals there have criticised "colonialist overtones" in the project.


Most of the world was probably unaware that Tuesday was World Francophonie Day 2018, but the occasion was marked by France and the 84 countries grouped in the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), not to mention the French president himself.

After a build-up starting in August and given an extra boost at a speech in Burkina Faso in November, he was due to unveil about 30 measures to "promote French and multilingualism" to an audience of academicians and young people "from every continent" at the French language's holy of holies, the Académie Française.

Fifth world language

Assessments of how widely spoken languages vary greatly, although there is no doubt that Mandarin Chinese and Spanish lead the list of first languages and that English - or what has become known as "globish" - is the most widely spoken second language.

The OIF says that French is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, the third business language and the fourth on the world wide web.

"It's not a question of opposing languages to each other - French and English, French and local and national African languages," the president's office insists. "There is room in today's world for a plurality of languages."

Africa key to strategy

But France does see its language as a key took of soft power and is counting on population growth in Africa to boost the number of French-speakers in the world from 275 million to 700 million by the middle of the century.

Like English, French is a legacy of colonialism on the continent and, while many African intellectuals treasure its literary legacy and its role as a lingua franca, some, such as Franco-Congolese writer Alain Mabankou and Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe, are suspicious of "neo-colonialist" motives in Paris.

Education and culture

Macron's most important proposal is to boost French finance for education in French, especially in Africa.

More money will be added to the 200 million euros he pledged to the Global Partnership for Education on a visit to Senegal in February.

There will also be support for "creative and cultural industries" around the world and Macron hopes to attract more foreign students to France, as he told a youthful audience on his recent visit to India.

And France's foreign affairs ministry is to launch a programme of teaching French to refugees in France.

English spoken in EU

The government also wants French to be the second language of international and European institutions and hopes to encourage language teaching at home and abroad to this end.

Despite Brexit, that may be a losing battle, if the European Union is anything to go by.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire was forced to plead for a question in French at a recent press conference in Brussels and his appeal - in English - was not successful.

Observers say that even French officials are happy to show off their English in meetings there, as is the president himself on international trips, although his delivery has inspired one teacher to use him as a teaching aid for French-speakers wishing to improve their accents.