To revive la Francophonie, France must lose its Paris-centric vision and “arrogance”

Some have criticised a lack of Francophone equivalent to the rallying cry against “Commonwealth literature” 40 years ago.

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“France is fabled as the land of bureaucratic centralisation, the epitome of administrative reason, where once a year every adolescent takes the same exam on the same day across the country,” Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books a few years ago. A model admired by many in continental Europe; if not today, certainly in the past. 

French, with its air of prestige, used to be the second tongue of many educated Europeans. If they didn't master Balzac's language, they'd at least aim at learning it as best they could.

Echoes of such linguistic grandeur still reverberate: even German is full of Gallic borrowed terms. In English, they're so perfectly camouflaged you don't even know they are there, the simple, everyday words like issue, development, envelope. In Italian, you can either say capisci or compris, grazie or merci, without sounding clever, or a smart arse.

In recent decades, French was under assault from English. Then came Brexit and the election of an ambitious French President, Emmanuel Macron.

While Brexiteers such as Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan have long been enthralled by the idea of the Anglosphere, Macron believes la Francophonie – the loose association of French-speaking countries – could help France restore its onetime greatness.

Macron did not put it this way, of course; he has preferred, over the past year or so, to emphasise the role of French as a binding language, a proposal that did not seem to endear him to African intellectuals. (Incidentally, Macron’s own French is known for being peppered with Anglicisms).

Writing for Le Monde, George Washington University professor Abdourahman Waberi – originally from Djibouti – asked France to finally drop an “outdated vision” heavily resting on an “artificial hierarchy” between French and Francophone artists.

Novelist and UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou, for example, publicly shared his views in no uncertain terms. On Macron’s plans to redefine French culture, the Congolese thinker said that La Francophonie “cannot just be an institution for saving the French language; that is not what Francophone countries are concerned about”. He questioned how many of France’s universities run courses on Francophone African literature and, damningly, pointed out that US students are keener to study these writers than their French counterparts. Mabanckou blamed it all on a Paris-centric vision and the ensuing neo-colonial “arrogance” towards non-French writers.

For here ultimately lies the biggest difference between La Francophonie and the Anglosphere. “The French literary world,” Mabanckou wrote, “still persists with its narrow Parisian approach to everything”. A means, the prize-winning man of letters added, of “claiming exclusive ownership of the French language.”

A second open letter appeared not long after, this time written by Mabanckou together with professor Achille Mbembe, originally from Cameroon. The Johannesburg-based Witwatersrand University bilingual scholar struck a fine parallel between the English-speaking world, where Britain has been one among many for a long time now, and the French one, with domineering France struggling to keep up an artificial pre-eminence. Mbembe said he finds it gloomy there's no Francophone equivalent in sight of Salman Rushdie's rallying cry against “Commonwealth literature”; and this was nearly 40 years ago.

London at least has the sense to perceive itself as part of something and yet, at the centre of nothing, Paris still clings onto a self-generated image that is no more there. Realising this would contribute build a federal Europe where each nation's sovereignty isn't under threat, neo-colonial thinking is confined to the past and language learning is free of political ties. As it should be by now.

Alessio Colonnelli is a freelance journalist specialising on European current affairs. He blogs here.