Macron’s French language initiative meets resistance – from French speakers

Joel Saget, AFP | French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou poses in Manosque, southeastern France, on September 24, 2016.

Among his many ambitious initiatives, French President Emmanuel Macron is looking to make his nation’s language relevant again. Some in the Francophone world say the move stinks of colonialism.


Macron’s business-first reputation can lead one to forget that he studied philosophy and wrote a racy (and perhaps thankfully) unpublished novel as a young lad. And that, despite being willing to break protocol and break into English now and again, he is, like so many of his compatriots, an ardent lover of the French language and a believer in its importance in this Babelesque world.

“French is the language of reason, it is the language of light,” he said in November during a visit to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

He went even further during a trip to Burkina Faso later that month when he vowed to make French the most spoken language in the world (it is currently the sixth most spoken language, or the 18th, depending on the source). He said French would be “the first language of Africa” and “perhaps the world". To do that he plans to launch a program of student exchanges and museum partnerships such as that in Abu Dhabi, among other things.

Still, the Language of Love should not be seen as a “relic of a colonial power".

Except that, for some especially writers hailing from those former colonies it is. They say that the French publishing world continues to treat those writers as Francophone outsiders and not as an integral part of French literature.

In January, the prize-winning Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou said he didn’t want to be part of Macron’s project to rejuvenate “La Francophonie", a network of 57 French-speaking countries, which he says is an imperialist tool that props up African autocrats.

“You can’t talk about the French-speaking world if you don’t ask the question of democracy in Africa,” he told British daily The Guardian. “There’s an incongruity in wanting to talk about defending the French language and then holding summits when we’re still in dictatorships in countries that speak French. And today, there are more countries that are dictatorships in the French-speaking world than the English-speaking world.”

On Martin Luther King Day he published an open letter to Macron explaining why he would not support the president’s initiative. The French language is not under threat, he argued, and such initiatives do little more than serve France’s political interests.

“I wote to tell president Macron that I would not take part in his project on the French language and Francophonie because I truly felt, in my conscience, that Africa’s future was once again being held hostage,” he told news website Quartz.

Since the letter, other figures, such as Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, have joined Mabanckou in his criticism.

Mabanckou also lamented that the French literary world doesn’t consider writers from the former colonies as part of the mainstream, and that American students were more likely to study Francophone African writers than French students are.

Not all African writers share his view. Véronique Tadjo, a celebrated author from the Ivory Coast, told FRANCE 24 that the French language is essential to the cohesion of Africa. And while she writes in French, Tadjo doesn’t want to be absorbed into the category of French literature.

“African literature has its particularities, its history, its canons as well,” she said.

The demographics support Mabanckou’s argument that French-language use will grow on its own. Today more people speak French in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, than they do in Paris, a recent article in the Economist noted. By 2050 roughly 85 percent of the world’s French speakers will live in Africa.

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