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The summit of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), which was held this weekend in Tunisia, underlined a real paradox of the French language: if the number of French speakers increases in demographic terms, learning of the French language is losing ground. The leaders therefore pleaded for a “reconquest” of French. A “turning point” in OIF meetings, according to some observers.

“Reconquest”, the term is dropped by Emmanuel Macron on his arrival at the eighteenth Francophonie summit, which was held on November 19 and 20, in Djerba, Tunisia. “This word has sometimes been misused by others, but it is a word of ambition and a journey that must continue,” said the French president, referring to the Reconquête party of Éric Zemmour without never name it. “We must have a project of reconquest”, he continued, urging to make the French language “hospitable” again by showing that we can speak a French which is “not necessarily academic”, but a language facilitating trade. For the African continent, “it is the true universal language”, “Francophony is the language of Pan-Africanism”, he further observed.

The 18th summit of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) is held in Djerba, Tunisia, in the presence of around thirty leaders.
The 18th summit of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) is held in Djerba, Tunisia, in the presence of around thirty leaders. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

In fact, the French language is well and truly on the decline. The French president, who spoke with young ambassadors of the Francophonie to extol the praises of the language of Molière, also called on everyone to show realism: “The Francophonie extends through the demography of certain countries […] but there are also real setbacks”. The planet currently has 321 million French speakers and projections show 750 million in 2050. However, “in the Maghreb countries, we speak less French than twenty or thirty years ago. “, opined the French head of state, by way of example, invoking in particular “quasi-political forms of resistance”, the ease of use of English or the difficulty of accessing books in French at affordable prices.

>> To read: In Quebec too, the language of Molière is declining in favor of English

French, a “fragile” language

For observers of the Francophonie, it is indeed necessary to distinguish speakers who have French as their mother tongue, who represent 25% of Francophones, from the remaining 75% who speak French as a second language. “In this, French remains a very fragile language compared to others because it is mostly transmitted at school and therefore dependent on the policy implemented in the country where it is taught”, explains Roger Pilhion , former collaborator at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current administrator of the French Secular Mission of the French Alliance of Paris Île-de-France.

After two successive postponements, the 18th summit of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) was held in Djerba, Tunisia in the presence of around thirty leaders.
After two successive postponements, the 18th summit of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) was held in Djerba, Tunisia in the presence of around thirty leaders. © FRANCE 24

“We were able to see it in particular in Rwanda which chose, for political reasons, to join the Commonwealth in 2009 and abolished the teaching of French in schools the following year. Or in the 1990s, when the three Maghreb countries have implemented, for twenty-five years, a policy of Arabization of teaching in schools. Each time, we have logically witnessed a sharp decline in French”.

Change of direction

Joining the measures to the speeches, the leaders anxious to reject “any fight of languages”, recommended a series of concrete measures intended to invest and improve education in French on the African continent, for example. Another project: to strengthen the presence of French on the Internet and in international organizations, where French is in decline, including within the European bloc of the OIF (International Organization of La Francophonie), the second largest (19 countries) behind Africa (32 countries).

Louise Mushikiwabo, Secretary General of the OIF, also pleaded for the strengthening of digital technology, an essential educational tool to allow better dissemination of French at a time when French teachers abroad are difficult to find and books too expensive for many developing countries.


Counter-Facts. © France 24

French must also, according to the leaders of the OIF, develop in the economic sphere. Training for 250,000 young people is thus planned, encouragement for SMEs and French-speaking missions, such as those which took 200 economic operators to Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia, two member countries of the OIF, to Rwanda. or in Gabon [qui a récemment aussi adhéré au Commonwelth]. For women’s entrepreneurship, another theme of the summit, the Secretary General of the OIF called on the Member States to provide more funding for the projects of the “La Francophonie avec Elles” fund.

“This summit marked a real turning point with the previous ones, believes Roger Pilhion, the specialist in issues inherent to the Francophonie. There is a real political change: the French language was the priority of this summit. Moreover, there have been no new memberships of member countries, as is usually the case during these annual meetings, because the leaders now want to make the entry of countries into the OIF conditional on concrete measures in favor of French”. Of the 88 member states of the organization, only 36 are French-speaking countries. “It is also not impossible that in the future, non-French speakers will be asked to present specific actions to disseminate French in order to remain within the organization. Some Gulf countries such as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates have always been open and could easily propose measures in this direction.

Emmanuel Macron’s “Francophonie d’action”

For Roger Pilhion, this new impetus for the French language is largely due to Emmanuel Macron and France, which finances a large part of the organization’s funds with Canada. “During his speech at the Institut de France in 2018, he had already shown a real interest in the Francophonie. None of his predecessors had until then shown such an attachment. Through numerous projects such as the French-speaking dictionary or the Francophonie museum in Villers-Cotterêts, he showed a certain determination to work in favor of the Francophonie.” It is therefore not surprising that the next summit of 2024 is planned in France,… in Villers-Cotterêts.

If Emmanuel Macron advocated a “Francophonie of action”, the president, like the other leaders, did not rule out the will of the OIF to weigh on the international political and economic scene. The summit of the 88 member countries of the French-speaking bloc also ended on Sunday in Tunisia, with the stated objective of having more influence in the settlement of crises, particularly in Africa. On the Tunisian island, the work also focused on “citizen distrust”, with populations tired of political “turbulence”, particularly in West Africa where there have been recent coups in Mali or Burkina Faso. “All the conflict zones have been subject to long debates,” detailed the former head of Rwandan diplomacy, when asked about the tensions between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, or between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “La Francophonie is an organization that supports, a catalyst [pour œuvrer] to mediation between the parties in conflict”, she underlined. “The OIF has always worked and intends to continue to act as a small UN in Africa. The Organization is very present on the continent, especially during elections”, specifies the one who is also co-author of the book “… And the world will speak French”.

At the end of the summit, the leaders of the OIF each left satisfied. “Djerba did not disappoint…Tunisia did not disappoint,” chanted OIF Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo during a press conference at the end of the summit: “We are on our way to a Francophonie of the future, modernized, much more relevant”. The continuation in Villers-Cotterêts, in France therefore, in 2024.

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