As the thirteenth Francophonie summit opens in Montreux, Switzerland, new statistics reveal an increasing dominance of African countries, whose demographic boom could end up tilting the organisation’s balance. EURACTIV spoke to Abdou Diouf, secretary-general of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).
"French is and remains a universal language because alongside English, it is the only language spoken on all five continents," said Diouf, a former president of Senegal.
Indeed, the most recent figures show that the number of French speakers in the world is increasing, "from 200 million in 2006 to 220 million today," he said.
Much of this increase can be attributed to Africa, reveals the OIF's latest report on the state of the French language worldwide, published yesterday (21 October).
While the number of people learning French or going to school in French declined by 7% in Europe between 2007 and 2010, it grew by a massive 31.5% in the sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean region and rose by 12.6% in North Africa and the Middle East. Worldwide, the increase averaged 13%.
The statistics may make uncomfortable reading for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose restrictive immigration policies are putting him at odds with the OIF’s stated objective of openness and diversity.
Heads of state and government from around 70 French-speaking countries are currently gathering in the Swiss city of Montreux for the thirteenth international Francophonie summit, set to take place on 22-24 October.
But Diouf rejects suggestions that the summits are an attempt to counter the dominance of English as a global language.
"The approach of la Francophonie is not to fight against English or any other particular language. Our goal is to promote cultural and linguistic diversity based on the principle that any linguistic monopoly is harmful for our world," Diouf said.
Furthermore, "the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie serves as an example for how to democratise international relations," he insisted: every member country has a voice, no matter whether it is large or small, northern or southern, landlocked or geographically isolated.
"There are no privileges and no veto rights […] it’s a place where countries have the chance to foster genuine exchange between one another," Diouf said.
He insisted that the OIF was capable of drawing up common positions that allow it to speak with one voice despite the major discrepancies between levels of economic development among its members. "But it's true that on certain subjects, the positions of each member are very different," he admitted.
Asked what la Francophonie was doing to raise its profile as an international body like the Commonwealth, whose Games guarantee it global visibility, Diouf said that there was in fact already a francophone equivalent which had been taking place every four years since 1995.
"But […] no-one is interested in trains that arrive on time," he said in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the organisational problems that blighted this year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, going on to express confidence that this weekend’s summit would provide another occasion to communicate to the OIF’s activities to the world.
In a separate interview with EURACTIV, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey recently refuted suggestions that the OIF was marginalising itself by focusing too heavily on boosting the French language, insisting that "la Francophonie has a genuine capacity to influence" (EURACTIV 11/10/10).
Asked to compare the OIF with other global bodies, Diouf said "la Francophonie doesn’t have much to do with the G8 or the G20, which are primarily economic organisations".
"As an organisation based on sharing a common language and common values, we are closer to the Commonwealth, although they are not concerned about promoting and defending the English language," Diouf said.
The OIF chief said both organisations shared a common desire to create a fairer world and were able to work together to push for global action in support of "the countries of the south," for example in international trade negotiations.
Diouf said he spoke in support of those countries, together with the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, ahead of every meeting of the G8 or G20.