Connect to share and comment

Are French-speakers victims of "linguistic terrorism"?

France has launched efforts on behalf of all francophonie to preserve the language in diplomatic circles.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Catherine Ashton, named the new EU foreign policy chief, pose at a European Union summit at the European Council headquarters on Nov. 19, 2009 in Brussels. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It brings an entirely new context — and not an entirely linguistic one — to the concept of “French lessons.”

Lady Catherine Ashton, the new and oft-maligned high representative of the European Union, does not speak French well. (Gasp!) And she generally declines to speak it at all in her highly-visible position as the face of EU foreign policy. “Oui, je peux parler francais, mais je ne suis pas tres bien en francais,” she said recently. (“Yes, I’m able to speak French, but I’m not so good at it.”)

The British baroness has been lambasted in her new post for everything from her appearance, to her decision not to visit Haiti immediately after the January earthquake, to whether she was sufficiently critical of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. But the French media has shown particular disdain for her discomfort speaking in what is regarded as the historic language of diplomacy. Once upon a time, this “flaw” would surely have prevented her from being appointed at all.

Now the French government, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the International Organization of Francophonie (OIF), has invited Ashton to brush up her French with an immersion course at a chalet in southern France. If a barb was intended, it has been blunted by Ashton’s acceptance and purported delight. She’s already planning to squeeze the course in this spring.

But English has not entirely taken over. French is still officially one of the six working languages at the United Nations, one of three working languages (along with English and German) out of the 20 languages of the EU, and at NATO it shares the status of official language with English. So why do francophones fear they are in a losing battle to keep French as Europe’s lingua franca?

It's not all in their imaginations: According to the website of the French Senate, the proportion of European Commission documents drafted in French has declined dramatically since 1996, from 38 percent to 11.8 percent in 2008. At the same time, the proportion of documents drafted in English has increased from 45.7 percent to 72.48 percent.

“I cannot accept that we are imposed on systematically to speak English,” said one prominent French-speaking member of the European Parliament (EP), Louis Michel of Belgium, in English. “English is not the only language in the world!” Giving the keynote address at an OIF event, Michel insisted that his fellow francophones start speaking up — loudly, and in their mother tongue.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is taking the matter even more seriously. He has appointed a former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as a “special envoy on francophonie” to lobby institutions to maintain the use of French. Raffarin has been to both Brussels and U.N. headquarters in New York to press Paris’ case.

At the EP, Michel said, “when you are in committee and you have 25 people speaking only French but one speaking English, you are obliged to speak English. This is not fair!”

He went so far as to call it “linguistic terrorism” against francophones.