For native English speakers, it can be difficult to comprehend the world from the vantage point of the speaker of another language. The primary tongue of business, science, technology, aviation, and entertainment, English is a truly dynamic and global force, with over 1.5 billion speakers and untold numbers more learning it. Succinctly put: There exists a powerful and highly decentralized English-speaking world, and no Anglophone city – whether London, New York, Toronto or Sydney – is capable of claiming to be the capital of the Anglosphere.
In its 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor noted that France would continue its push for greater European cohesion. But along with its Continental pursuits, Paris is at the center of a vast Francophone sphere, and under the direction of President Emmanuel Macron, the country plans to reassert its influence abroad by promoting French.
For French, the story is rather different. Without question, the capital of the French-speaking world, often called the francophonie, is Paris. The City of Light is the undisputed economic, military, publishing and entertainment hub for the language. Other Francophone countries including Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg may be wealthy, and some including the Democratic Republic of Congo may be more populous, but France remains the peerless leader of the Francophone world, for better or worse.
But that world is more disjointed than ever. The old constructs that bound the francophonie together in the past have either completely broken down or have weakened. The legacy of France's former empire, which stretched from Africa to Asia to the New World, is drifting ever further into history, and most, if not all, of the former colonies' post-independence leaders – many of whom sought to maintain tight relations with Paris – are long dead. The leaders of the new generation, in turn, are not pursuing the same links to the former metropole as their predecessors. With Africa already home to the most French speakers in the world, Paris and its outdated institutions like the French Academy can thus no longer expect to control the trajectory of its treasured tongue. And as the French language becomes decoupled from its Gallic origin, the diverse francophonie is increasingly pushing for a rebalancing of the relationship.
And as the French language becomes decoupled from its Gallic origin, the diverse francophonie is increasingly pushing for a rebalancing of the relationship.
Macron's Grand Plans
Cue French President Emmanuel Macron, who has entered the fray by proposing to revamp the francophonie. The dynamic president is something of a walking contradiction: Among the country's many presidents, he is, by most accounts, the most proficient speaker of a foreign language, boasting a command of English that easily charms international and domestic audiences. Yet he is also an ardent promoter of the French language and Francophone culture – and, therefore, influence – around the world. He has a degree in philosophy and has pursued creative writing to boot, but he nonetheless operates in the rough-and-tumble reality of politics and its nuances. In some ways, Macron is thus the perfect candidate to push for a new plan to rejuvenate the francophonie: His relative youth, comfort in cosmopolitan settings, knowledge of foreign languages and creative disposition make him unique among France's leaders who have traditionally displayed hostility to the trappings of globalization, or "Americanization," as French thinkers have often characterized it. Indeed, supporters of the francophonie have pushed for multilingualism in recent years in the belief that the more languages people speak, the more they will likely learn French, thereby expanding the Francophone world's broader influence.
Delivering a speech March 20 to the French Academy, a venerable institution founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1663 to oversee the French language, Macron detailed his vision to bolster the global status of French by increasing support for the teaching of the language. Critically, the president wishes to strengthen fragile systems of education in more than two dozen Francophone countries in Africa. In these states, funding for quality teachers is scant, meaning hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of students are provided with rote French lessons and retain little. Although Paris supports a global network of Alliance Francaise schools to promote French language and culture, France's government has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward the funding of these public education systems in Africa over the past several decades. The lack of attention toward cultural development has become more pronounced in recent years, as French authorities have focused on bolstering security budgets in their interactions with Francophone countries. In fact, a French government report once noted that Mali's education system (in which French is the official language of instruction) largely remains afloat thanks to U.S. funding – meaning the cultural juggernaut of the Anglophone world is underwriting the continuation of French influence in its former colonial space.
Capturing a Demographic Wave
For Macron, the promotion of French stems from a question of demographics. By 2065, more than 1 billion people are expected to call Francophone countries home, according to U.N. estimates. But outside of business and political elites, huge swaths of the population in these largely impoverished states cannot effectively function in the language, creating an impediment to the continuation of Paris' influence. As French policymakers have noted, Paris has enjoyed great success over the decades in cultivating elites (particularly those in power) in other countries – even if that has come at the cost of losing the battle for hearts and minds amid the wider population. Accordingly, working to increase the overall number of French speakers in these countries may bind them culturally to France in the years ahead.
Fortifying French in its old colonial backyard does not appear to be Macron's sole aim. For his speech to the academy, the president also invited the ambassadors of Ghana and Nigeria, two predominantly Anglophone countries with a combined population of over 216 million that are surrounded by Francophone states. Both have a hunger to learn French to better integrate and do business with their Francophone neighbors (besides the undeniable cachet of speaking it). By making linguistic overtures to Ghana and Nigeria, France is also indicating its broader mission to extend its influence beyond that of a narrow, imperial effort to bind its former colonies to it.
A map of the Francophone world reveals countries and jurisdictions around the world for whom French is ostensibly the main language. But while such an assertion for places like metropolitan France, Quebec and Wallonia is undoubtedly true, there are many places in the francophonie, particularly in Africa, in which the penetration of French extends little beyond a select group of elites. After years of allowing funding for French to take a backseat to security concerns in its former colonial backyard, Paris is preparing to redouble its efforts to spread its tongue, both in former possessions and beyond, amid a coming window of demographic opportunity. In so doing, Macron might be doing more to guarantee French influence in the decades to come than any security arrangement would.
Editor's Note: We have adjusted to the capitalization of "francophonie" to more clearly reference the French-speaking world, rather than The International Organization of La Francophonie.