Emmanuel Macron is going to be investing millions of Euros to make the French language a stronger global rival to English at the European Union, and the number one language in Africa.
There’s an interesting reason for his campaign in the EU: “The situation now is quite paradoxical. English has probably never been as present in Brussels at the time when we are talking about Brexit. This domination is not inevitable. It’s up to us to set some rules, to be present, and make French the language with which one has access to a number of opportunities.”
In other words, since Britain is leaving the European Union, it should leave with its language. With Germany as the other recognized power within the 27-member bloc but without a spread of German in the union or around the world, the French president sees Brexit as providing a gap to be filled, to drive French towards becoming more mainstream and the language with which the global conversation is driven.
But where is there such a gap or even a need in Africa?
There are about 24 countries on the continent using French as their official language. Like the ones who use English, that is more a consequence of colonialism than the choices made by free and conscious people. The integration of the languages into cultural norms and the reliance on them as the language for learning science and technology has made them indispensable and mandatory for development. However, not many have been able to make the switch from their mother tongues to the foreign languages, creating huge swathes of able but excluded people for whom learning another language is difficult. If the axiom that people think in their native languages first before a second language holds true, it gives some idea of the causes of the existing gaps in knowledge and innovation on the continent.
Macron, as the president of a sovereign entity, has the prerogative to promote the interest of his nation by furthering the French language. However, it would reasonable to base a campaign of that sensitivity on the impact of French legacies in Francophone Africa whose economy continues to be tied (not for the best) to the Elysee Palace and the Banque de France. Around the world, there are about 220 and 300 million people who speak French as either their first or second language. While it is a somewhat romantic and accent-y language, French with its peculiar masculine-feminine dichotomies is not exactly the easiest second tongue to acquire. Add to that some calls by gender sociologists and linguists for a total review of the language to make it more gender neutral (which is not set to happen anytime soon), the odds are reasonably stacked against a French-speaking world.
In any case, the apparent ubiquity of the English language arguably has more to do with the world-power status of the United States than Britain, its original speakers. Hollywood, the gaming industry and the unrivalled military might of the Pentagon which makes Washington politics the most followed in the world media, have all contributed to making English THE language. Hence, Macron may want to divert his motivations away from Brexit to increasing French influence in other ways.
It is probably too late to knock France off its pedestal in Francophone Africa though it is not an idea to be abandoned; technological advancements can aid a holistic transition and the place of Swahili in East Africa will be the inspiration to keep trying and iterating. But if that is a dream still some time away, it should not be made dimmer and impossible by President Macron.
Using millions of Euros to push the “language of freedom” in Africa could be colonialism and bondage all of over again.