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France has launched efforts on behalf of all francophonie to preserve the language in diplomatic circles.
Peter Adler, a press officer with the largest political grouping in the EP, the European People’s Party, said there has been enormous change since he began his career in parliament in the early 1990s. At that time, he recalled, most legislation was drafted in French and later translated into the other languages.
“If you wanted to have the early news about what was in the latest commission proposal,” Adler said, “you had to read it in French. Now 80 percent is drafted in English and then translated.”
A Dane who has been fluent in French since his youth, Adler just shrugged when asked whether this was fair to francophones. “It’s just a fact that we’ve got lots of colleagues who speak English. It’s just the way it is.”
But Michel suspects there’s more to this trend than simply the fact that EU enlargement to eastern Europe has brought to Brussels many people whose second language is English, not French, or that English is considered the easier of the two languages to learn. “There’s also a strategy from the anglophone world,” he said, “[trying to] impose English as the only language that all over the world has to be spoken ... . Imagine the advantage it is for those who are speaking the mother language.”
He says the pattern can be found in all international institutions, including the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the latter of which is headed, incidentally, by former French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
But the French aren’t the only ones concerned about the decline. Robert Compaore, a consular official in the embassy of the francophone African nation Burkina Faso, said French is unquestionably the most important language for his country. As English takes over, he said, “it’s difficult for us. We hope French will become more and more used.”
A few blocks away from the parliament sits the Alliance Francaise, one of the world’s largest French-language schools, which also seeks to promote French culture and arts. Despite what may be a decline in the use of French elsewhere, at the Alliance there’s no shortage of interest, said the director, Pascale de Schuyter Hualpa. “Not at all!” she said emphatically. “We have grown.” She said that is the case at Alliance branches around the world.
One Alliance student, Greek diplomat Charalampos Moulkiotis, said he is learning French primarily to help him with daily life in Belgium, where about 40 percent of the population speaks French. “The work language is English,” he said. “[French] helps sometimes but it’s not so essential.”
Hungarian journalist Gyorgy Foris, however, has a different perspective. He is taking the courses because “as a working tool, it’s necessary. There are very, very many situations when the partners talk just in French or prefer to talk in French.” Foris noted that French officials also prefer to talk to journalists who speak French, even if it is imperfect. “It’s an immediate switch” in attitude, he said, if French leaders are addressed in their own tongue.
Lady Ashton can only hope she has a similar experience when she returns from her week in the French countryside.