Macron unveils plan to boost French, 'language of liberty'

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Paris (AFP)

President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday unveiled plans to get more people speaking French, saying the "treasure shared by 700 million people" belonged to all and should be given more prominence in the EU ahead of Brexit.

France's youthful president has impressed foreign audiences with his near-flawless English, a language with which his predecessors -- and the wider French public - have had a famously fraught relationship.

Yet while himself opting for English when addressing investors in Davos or being interviewed by the foreign press, the 40-year-old literature lover wants to get more people speaking his native tongue, particularly in Africa, seen as a wellspring of potential new French speakers.

In an hour-long speech to mark International Francophonie Day, Macron acknowledged that French was still associated by some, particularly in Africa, with colonialism or the autocratic regimes that Paris propped up for decades after independence.

"It would be arrogant to say that France is only the language of liberty" he said.

"People have tortured in French and done wonderful things in French," he said, adding that the fact that some tyrants spoke French "does not absolve them" for their deeds.

French, he said, had "liberated itself from France", becoming a "world language" connecting francophones from Cameroon to New Caledonia.

- Scramble for Africa -

French is currently the world's fifth most spoken language after Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic, according to French foreign ministry figures based on the population of countries where French is an official language.

On a visit to the west African country of Burkina Faso in November, Macron called on Africans to help make French "the first language in Africa and maybe even the world in the coming decades".

But ahead of Tuesday's speech at the Academie Francaise -- the gatekeeper of the French language -- his advisors said he would settle for third.

Calling French teachers "heroes" Macron -- whose wife Brigitte is a former French teacher -- announced 30 measures to improve the teaching of French, reverse the decline in its use in international institutions and support francophone musicians and authors.

They included more investment in French instruction in France's predominantly immigrant suburbs, expanding the capacity of France's overseas schools and more classes for refugees.

Refugees currently have the right to 250 hours of free tuition.

"I defy you to learn French in 250 hours," he said, pledging to increase their hours to 400 -- or 600 for those with little formal education.

He also announced plans to provide more French lessons for European Union officials, noting: "English has never been as present in Brussels at a time when we are discussing Brexit!"

- Dogged by the past -

The International Francophonie Organisation has forecast that because of explosive population growth in Africa, over one billion people will live in French-speaking countries by 2065, second only to countries that speak English.

In Africa, it predicts that French will overtake English by 2050.

But Macron's call to Africans to speak more French received a cool reception on the continent, with some intellectuals accusing him of neo-colonialism.

Franco-Congolese author Alain Mabanckou, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, turned down an invitation by Macron to help draft his "plan for French and multilingualism", seeing it as a cover for continued meddling in former colonies.

His sentiments were echoed by Franco-Djiboutian author and scholar Abdourahman Waberi.

"If he really wanted to get away from the colonial past, he would have consulted more, listened more and engaged in more dialogue" with Africans, Waberi told AFP.