For years, French authorities have sought to contain the decline of their language in the European Union and other international bodies by requesting their citizens to only speak French at public meetings.
Former President Jacques Chirac once famously stormed out of a Brussels meeting when his compatriot Ernest-Antoine Seillière, then leader of EU business organisation UNICE, dared speaking English.
“I will express myself in English because it is the language of business,” Sellière said, causing the walkout by Chirac and two of his ministers.
These days now appear long gone.
In Brussels, French diplomats and policymakers have largely accepted – albeit reluctantly – the idea that French has lost its supremacy to English, which has become the main working language of EU institutions.
Defenders of the French language have of course not disappeared, like the aptly named ‘Défense de la Langue Française’ organisation (DLF), or the ‘Francophonie’, an international club of 77 countries which share French as a common language.
Defending multilingualism and French ideas
But their rhetoric has started shifting from a purely defensive stance to one which sees language issues from the broader perspective of multilingualism and influence.
Speaking at an event in Brussels last month, Philip Cordery, a national deputy who represents French citizens living in the Benelux region, voiced opinions that would have probably been considered offensive in the Chirac days.
Highlighting the importance of education, Cordery said the French would be better at defending their language if they started learning foreign languages themselves, including English.
“We must speak more foreign languages in our French schools,” said Cordery, who was addressing a conference on linguistic diversity organised by the DLF’s Brussels chapter on 23 March.
“The best way to defend French is that our children do not speak only one language,” he continued, adding: "We cannot merely defend French or Francophonie, we must defend linguistic diversity."
Conversely, Cordery said he was battling to introduce bilingual classes in schools outside France, so that more foreigners can learn French. “The best way to preserve the language is to ensure that in the neighbouring countries, foreigners speak our language,” he said, adding that the effort should go “well beyond” the traditional network of French ‘Lycées’,
Francophonie 'should not only talk to itself'
Although Cordery’s views are still considered provocative by some, they seem to be gaining ground among the French-speaking elite.
Pietro Sicuro, the Francophonie’s Permanent Representative to the EU, said francophone ideas and influence were at least as important as language itself. From that perspective, it is essential that foreigners are able to catch up with French debates, he told the DLF-Brussels event. And for that, only a basic understanding of French is necessary.
“The ‘Francophonie’ should not talk only to itself, it must be open to others,” said Sicuro, a Canadian national from the Québec region. “This is how there is a French influence,” he said. “People must master the French language minimally”.
French people dealing with European affairs in Brussels on a daily basis know only too well that French has long lost the battle for linguistic supremacy. For them, speaking French only simply isn’t an option anymore.
Vincent Guerin, a financial director at the EU’s external action service, said his service, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, only speaks English. “A commissioner leaves a mark on his or her service. If she requires documents in a certain language, it is her right.”
Still, there remains ample room for French language and influence, others argued.
“The major training effort made by the OIF has had a result that should not be overlooked,” said Philippe Étienne, the French permanent representative to the EU. “Diplomats speak French in formal meetings, and know that everyone understands. This is essential, because French is a working language.”
“What is essential is to promote French ideas and initiatives proactively and in a wider European context, focusing on alliances to get things moving and multilingualism rather than defensive actions,” said Françoise Chotard, who represents the Île-de-France region in Brussels.
“In our daily representation of the Île-de-France, we are working in that spirit, by cultivating close links with other European regions,” she told EurActiv.