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Francophonie has a bright future ahead of it

Last Updated: 15 Mar 2019

March 20 is the International Day of Francophonie, an opportunity to take stock of this rather unknown reality. Some see it as a pure extension of the French language of France, whose future would be bleak. Others see it as a colonial legacy to be liquidated as a matter of urgency

Or others imagine it as a literary empire, a major part of a world literary republic. We can extend for a long time the list of representations, each of which has a variable part of truth. In any case, an attempt at clarification is necessary.

Let us start by indicating that there are two francophonies. First of all, there is the francophonie of French speakers , which can be compared to the world of English speakers, Spanish speakers, Portuguese speakers, Arabic speakers, Chinese speakers, etc.

But there is also, the only case of this kind, an institutional francophonie whose number of member countries represents a small half of the UN member countries.

Let's start with the francophonie of the French speakers and continue with the institutional Francophonie (note the capital "F") and its global challenges.

Since the famous report by Professor David Graddol published by the British Council in 1997, The Future of English, speakers have begun to be estimated, not only in terms of "natives", but also in terms of "second language" speakers (and not "the second language" you learn in high school), i.e. speakers who do not have the langage we are referring to as their mother tongue but use it daily, and thirdly, learners or those who have learned a language as a foreign language. This constitutes three circles called L1, L2 and EFL (English as a Foreign Language).

In 1995, there were 375 million native Engish speakers, 375 million "second language" and 750 million speakers using English as a foreign language . Of course, this categorization is relative and can evolve, with EFL speakers slipping into the L2 category and L2 moving into L1. In the latter case, it is sufficient that the transmission of the mother tongue within the family and at school be carried out in a satisfactory manner, and a speaker initially in L2 can legitimately be categorized in L1. It should be noted that the accuracy of the data is lower for category L2 than for category L1 and lower for category EFL than for the two previous ones.

It should also be added that in the Graddol report, only English speakers were estimated in L2 and EFL, while speakers of the other languages were counted only as native speakers, which prevented any serious comparison.

In particular, in 1995, the French language was credited with 72 million speakers.
An interesting compilation of all existing sources can be found on Wikipedia1 to come to comparisons of these "three circles".

These figures, translated into graphical form, limited to English and French for lack of space, give these two graphs:


Trois cercles en1  Trois cercles en2 
 TRois cercles fr  Trois cercles fr2

These last two graphs for the French language call for a comment. The left one, which gives 235 million in L1, is based on the OIF's International Observatory of the French Language, while the right one is a reconstruction intended to make the data for French and English fully comparable. Indeed, the OIF does not strictly retain "natives" insofar as the notion of "natives", which in reality refers to "historical nations", is of doubtful legitimacy. Some French speakers in Abidjan, to take just one example, are as much "native" as some French speakers in France.

It should be added that the OIF's numbering is minimal because it is based on various sources and only tries to estimate the number of speakers with a level of expression that allows them to be qualified as French speakers.

Other ways of counting exist based on the number of inhabitants of countries with French as their official language. This is the case of CERLF (Centre d'études et de recherche sur le monde francophone) and FERDI2, the latter thus defining a linguistic space:

A linguistic space, as defined in the report Le poids économique de langue française dans le monde (2013), includes any country with more than 500,000 inhabitants which meets one of the following conditions:

- de jure dimension: the language considered is the official language;

- de facto dimension: a significant fraction (20%) of the population speaks the language in question (some countries may therefore belong simultaneously to several areas)

As we can see, the aims are not the same. According to FERDI criteria3, the English-speaking area would have 2.5 billion people, while the French-speaking area would have 480 million, or one fifth of the English-speaking world, but making the French-speaking area the third largest language area after English and Mandarin.

It is useful to have orders of size and importance.

And if projections are made about the future, they depend on two factors: the demographic prospects drawn up by the United Nations for each country and region of the world, and the prospects for school enrolment. The latter factor does not count if the enumeration is based on official languages, but it is as decisive as the first factor if we refer to the IFM method. In any case, given the importance of Africa, which now accounts for more than 59% of French speakers (15% North Africa, 44% Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean), the French-speaking area is the most vigorous. It is to be hoped that the demographic transition (reduction in mortality, followed by a reduction in fertility) already very much underway in many countries will be faster. The fact is that by 2065, the French-speaking area should exceed one billion, or a quarter of the English-speaking area (4 billion), while average projections give 711 million for the Arabic-speaking area and 586 million for the Spanish-speaking area.

Let us now turn to the institutional Francophonie, the OIF. Composed of 88 States and governments (61 members and 27 observers), it is a fully-fledged international organization that some see as the heir to the colonial empire, which it is not. Unlike the Commonwealth, France did not participate in its creation. Three heads of state, Léopold Sedar Senghor, President of Senegal, Diori Hamani, President of Niger and Habib Bourghiba, President of Tunisia, were soon followed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who prompted the signing in Niamey, on 20 March 1970, by representatives of 21 States and governments, of the Convention establishing the Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation (ACCT). From 1986, on the initiative of François Mitterrand, the practice of summits of heads of state and government every two years became more systematic and in 1995 the organisation set up a Secretary General, the first of whom would be the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, to whom Abdou Diouf, former President of the Republic of Senegal, would succeed in 2002. And it is in 2005 at the Ministerial Conference in Antananarivo (Madagascar) that the name "Organisation internationale de la Francophonie" will be dedicated.

Given its origin, the OIF has focused its activity on development issues and technical and cultural cooperation.

If we take the agenda of the 1986 Versailles Summit, it was organized around four themes: development, cultural and communication industries, language industries and technological development linked to research and scientific information.

Over the course of the summits, culture and education, the original fields of Francophone cooperation, have been joined by the political field (peace, democracy and human rights), sustainable development, the economy and digital technologies. The Institut de la Francophonie pour le développement durable (IFDD) was created in Quebec City in 1988 and the Institut de la Francophonie pour l'éducation et la formation (IFEF) in Dakar in 2015.

We are entitled to ask ourselves the question of what the strategic challenges facing the Francophonie at the world level are.

Everyone can have their own reading. We therefore give that of the OEP

The first issue is first and foremost that of plurilingualism.

This is not insignificant, because it is an ideological shift at the level of the entire planet. Monolingualism is an ideology that claims that all reality can be reduced to a single language, the dominant language of course, that is, the language of the country that wants to dominate all others. Seen in another way, monolingualism is also about wanting to reduce reality to what your own language says, a world of its own, a being in itself. This is also called essentialism.

Plurilingualism is the opposite. Ultimately you could say that you never have enough languages to express everything.That is why languages must be preserved, but at the same time they must constantly evolve. It's a different world.

And from this point of view, contrary to many completely erroneous representations, the French-speaking world is the most plurilingual there is, and this is due not to Europe, but to Africa. Léopold Sedar Senghor liked to repeat "In the ruins of colonialism, we found this wonderful tool, the French language". At no time in its history has the French language corresponded to the French nation, even if the French monarchy played a fundamental role in its influence and expansion. But if, according to Senghor's thought, the French language is a gift from France, conversely, plurilingualism is a gift from Africa.

This is a very good basis, in our opinion, for thinking out globalization.

It is also well known that the continent that will develop the most by the end of this century is Africa. The evolution of the world and demographics have decided so. Therefore the future of the world is largely in Africa, the continent with the largest number of languages, but also has 4 international languages that have also become African languages, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. And as we said before, Africa represents almost 60% of today’s francophonie , and more than 80% tomorrow. So the challenges of francophonie are the challenges of Africa. In Africa, the transmission of African languages and, at the same time, the appropriation of international languages are two complementary and non-competing issues that are truly crucial and closely linked to development.

After plurilingualism, the second challenge is education.

Given the youth of the population, the efficiency and quality of education systems are the first lever of development. There is obviously a linguistic dimension, which has been recognized as a key point in educational processes for many years. It is the question of the relationship between local languages and the teaching languages which are the international languages already mentioned. Many French speaking governments are committed to working with the OIF to ensure that local languages, when it is possible, are used in education, especially in the lower grades, to both improve the efficiency of teaching, including the learning of French, while facilitating the transmission of local languages.

The third major challenge is obviously the challenge of economic development, which can be sustainable only if it is based on two conditions: the efficiency and quality of education and political stability and a good management.

Finally, the fourth major challenge: The African, French and Latin American dimensions must be fully assumed by Europe.

The word equilibrium is no longer what it used to be, neither at the time of the Cold War nor in the decades following the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Today we have two super powers, the United States and China, competing economically and technologically. The United States is waging a complete economic war through the way of intelligence service, espionage and legal and financial coercion. The victims of which being in the end theEuropeans, who are treated more as vassals than allies and more as rivals and adversaries than partners, are ultimately wind up as collateral victims. It is not insignificant to repeat that the United States' military budget represents nearly 40% of the world's military spending, and 3 times more than its direct adversary. It is therefore time for Europe to acquire a geostrategic vision.

Without going into detail, far be it from us to reduce everything to language issues. But it is clear that there are few subjects where language and education issues are absent. This is what is at stake at the 5th European Conference on Plurilingualism.

1 https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_de_langues_par_nombre_total_de_locuteurs

2 Fondation pour les Études et Recherches sur le Développement International (FERDI)