Paris applies ‘friendly pressure’ on French language use

With the Lisbon Treaty in place and recruitment ready to start for the European diplomatic service, France is on a mission to strengthen its “francophone exigency,” said former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, special envoy on francophony to President Nicolas Sarkozy.

On a visit to Brussels last Thursday (14 January), Raffarin said that France would be “gentle, but firm” in achieving a better linguistic balance in the EU institutions.

The message was addressed to EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, with whom Raffarin held talks during his one-day visit.

The promotion of francophony has geopolitical implications for Europe, Raffarin argued, as the alternative would be a G-2 between the USA and China. Francophony, which in his eyes unites Europe and Africa, has a strategic role to play in this respect, he stressed.

With the 2004 enlargement to Central and Eastern European countries, the risk that the French language would be sidelined reached a peak in the EU institutions, Raffarin argued. Since then, France has done a lot to motivate East European civil servants and diplomats to learn French. 

The former prime minister, who resigned following France’s rejection of the European Constitution by referendum in 2005, said he was highly motivated by his mission and boasted of himself as a political heavyweight – a first for the special envoy on francophony, he said.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the fact that several commissioners-designate – including High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton – do not speak French, Raffarin replied that he expected a language training programme, already in use, to bear fruit. 

Twelve EU commissioners from the outgoing college, who did not speak French when they took office, now speak “the language of Molière,” he said.

After several East European countries joined the EU, the International Organisation of Francophony (OIF) now has on board 15 of the 27 EU members, Raffarin said. Bulgaria and Romania became full members, and the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary enjoy observer status with the OIF.

Paris is going to push for French to remain one of the three working languages of the EU alongside English and German. Raffarin also said he would insist that French-speaking spokespersons be appointed to the EU institutions.

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