Future of French language ‘to be decided in Brussels’

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Officials at the International Francophony Organisation (OIF) have warned of "catastrophic" use of French in EU institutions, as the language's position in Brussels becomes ever more fragile, a conference heard last week (31 March).

Roger Dehaybe from the Francophonie – an international organisation of mostly French-speaking countries – said the idea that the French language had maintained its global status thanks to steady population growth in Africa was misleading.

Instead, he underscored the "catastrophic" state of French language use within the EU institutions.

"The future of French will be decided in Brussels," warned Dehaybe, because the EU is the only political and economic power in the world where French still matters.

Dehaybe is Honorary Chair of the Agence Intergouvernementale de la Francophonie, the former name of the OIF, which he chaired from 1998 to 2005. He was speaking at a conference hosted by the Association of Former French-speaking Members of Parliament on 31 March.

According to Dehaybe, only 12% of EU texts are produced in French, although a majority of officials are from countries that are member states of the OIF.

Particular concern was voiced over the language criteria for positions in the new European External Action Service presided over by Baroness Catherine Ashton.

The EEAS will use English as its main language after Germany demanded that the EU institutions' three working languages – English, French and German – be placed on an equal footing or English be given preference.

A single language for the EU?

Given that Europe has managed to introduce a single currency, Dehaybe expressed fear that it might be able to introduce a "single working language, too," with disastrous consequences for the use of the French language in the world.

As an example of such a scenario, he cited Rwanda, a country that switched school education from French to English in 2008.

If something similar happened within the EU, the French language would lose much of its prestige and value as a second language for people all over the world, Dehaybe warned.

A two-speed OIF?

Even within the Francophony organisation itself, French was often no longer the language of debate, Dehaybe said. This was due to an ever-increasing number of OIF member states that are not strictly French-speaking.

The OIF has 56 members and associate members and 19 observer nations, some of which only have loose ties with the French language, for example being surrounded on all sides by French-speaking countries, as is the case of Equatorial Guinea.

One way to make the OIF a more efficient tool for protecting the French language, Dehaybe said, would be to create "entities" or inner circles within the organisation, depending on the "specific linguistic situation of a country".

This can be read as a diplomatic way of saying that only genuinely francophone countries would get to participate in certain debates.

This way, OIF enlargement would again be unproblematic and beneficial to the cause of promoting French, the conference heard.

The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) unites 75 countries across the world that are either entirely or partly French-speaking or have a particular interest in the language.

Today, the OIF has 21 European full or observer members, including 11 EU countries (see full list here).

The OIF is now increasingly dominated by African countries, whose demographic boom could end up tilting the organisation's balance away from Europe.

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%.

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