What is the Future of French Speaking Africa

La Francophonie
La Francophonie Summit held in Kinshasa recently

As the influence of the French language declines and some turn to English, what is the place of France and La Francophonie in Africa?

The week before the Soummet de la Francophonie, Abdou Diouf, Secretary-General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie – a body also known as La Francophonie and which is comprised of countries in which French is widely spoken – outlined his vision for French-speaking Africa.

Africa, he said, was “the future” of La Francophonie: “According to our studies, by 2050 there will be 715 million French speakers in the world, of which 85% will be African”. The leaders at the October 12-14 conference in Kinshasa appeared to agree with this vision, and decided to make Africa’s participation in La Francophonie a priority.

Recent events, however, point to a Francophonie in crisis. French-African relations under France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy were, from an African perspective, shambolic. Yet, especially given the increasing influence of other languages around the continent, Diouf envisions a more cooperative and symbiotic Francophone world – one that does not centre on France, but rather respects the fact that a large group of countries share a language and values.

After 32 years of la Francophonie struggling to be relevant, is it in fact time for French-speaking African nations to start writing their political narratives in a different language?

Bidding adieu to their roots?

Rwanda and Gabon both seem to think so and are moving away from La Francophonie, renouncing their post-colonial, French-speaking identity for a more diversified, English-speaking future.

Rwanda overhauled its education system in 2009 to allow for a gradual shift away from French to English. In theory, this meant that the next few generations of Rwandans would grow up speaking fluent French and English.

Claver Yisa, director of education policy at the time, claimed the policy would make Rwanda “equal”, alluding to the declining influence of French in the international political sphere, and that it would help attract foreign investment. By joining the Commonwealth despite not being a former British colony, President Paul Kagame’s government demonstrated its thinking that the country would be best able to flourish outside La Francophonie.

However, although the Rwandan government’s main official reason for embracing English was economic, the tensions between Rwanda and France cannot be ignored. Ties were severed in 2006, when a French judge ordered the arrest of nine of Kagame’s allies who had allegedly played a part in the assassination of former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana.

Rwanda then established a judicial commission of enquiry into the French government’s involvement in the 1994 genocide, which concluded that France’s engagement “was of a political, military, diplomatic and logistic nature” and demanded the arrest of several senior French officials. This culminated in protests outside the French Embassy in Kigali and the expulsion of French diplomats from the country.

Following in Rwanda’s footsteps, Gabon has also moved towards embracing English, with the same official reasons as Rwanda – to heighten its presence on the world stage. President Ali Bongo visited Rwanda a week before the Kinshasa summit and a few days later his spokesperson announced: “The president of Gabon plans to introduce English into our country…Why shouldn’t we draw inspiration from this to see how Gabon, a French-speaking country, could in the years ahead decide to introduce English as a necessary working language, and then see if English could become a second language?”

This justification seems perfectly plausible, but the timing of the decision perhaps points to additional motives. Announced just days before the summit, it sent shockwaves through the French-speaking community. Historically, the Gabonese elite’s relationship with their French counterparts was widely recognised as extremely close. So much so that both turned a blind eye to the other’s misdemeanours until 2010, when the international community’s concern at the Bongo family’s substantial wealth led to French authorities pursuing allegations of corruption. It is this ongoing investigation that is widely believed to have prompted President Bongo to move away from France.

Français: The Language of Rights?

One of the effects of Gabon using the French language as a political weapon is the message it sends to other Francophone leaders and citizens. As French continues to decline in international importance (it is the ninth most spoken language in the world) the notion of what it means to speak French becomes more politicised.

If English has become the gateway to economic development, then French – and La Francophonie -has to stand for something other than money if it is to compete. And La Francophonie’s answer to this appears to be a renewed emphasis on human rights.

At this year’s summit, France’s President François Hollande commented, “Speaking French also means speaking about human rights, because the rights of man were written in French”. Despite this clear attempt to foster a common linguistic and cultural pride among French-speaking nations, broadening the meaning of being a member of the Francophone world to include such rhetoric could end up causing offence to member-states if they find themselves on the wrong side of the argument. Accusing one member state of not following La Francophonie’s recommendations on human rights issues has the potential to isolate it. From an African perspective, this rhetoric could also be a bit too reminiscent of France’s paternalistic, neo-colonial Françafrique attitude.

This is exactly what occurred when France used the summit to criticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s human rights record. The fact the criticism came from another member of La Francophonie made it a pariah at the summit, a gift not usually bestowed upon the host country of international summits. Canada quickly followed suit and the Congolese president’s feathers were left truly ruffled by the criticism. In the words of one Congolese academic: “I love the French language; it’s our heritage and the language through which we integrate into the world. But when I hear our partners not supporting us, I don’t feel like staying.”

Smoothing Ruffled Feathers

Reading the comment pages of African newspapers and posts of African bloggers, it is clear that La Francophonie has an image problem. It is seen as too dominated by France and French interests.

Nevertheless, Diouf recently asserted that France was not at the centre of La Francophonie. Given France’s spotlight before, during and after the summit, the secretary-general’s assertion seems odd at best. It also contradicts his previous calls for France to do more for the French-speaking community: “Even though French belongs to all those who use it…the struggle for the Francophonie begins in France itself”, he said. At least for now, however, the new French president appears to be using this authority for good by symbolically distancing himself from the Françafrique policies of recent years.

The first step towards this was visiting Senegal to smooth relations after Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar five years ago. Nevertheless, Senegalese media was sceptical about the new president. Yero Dia, a political commentator said: “Sarkozy came with contempt. Hollande is coming to clean up. But for me it’s not about Sarkozy, nor about Hollande. It’s about us, Africans. It’s like the horse and the rider. Whether it’s Mitterand, or Chirac, or Sarkozy or Hollande, what remains constant is the system … Nothing will change until Africans stop behaving like the horse and letting France be their rider”.

Some cite other myriad problems with France’s attitude towards Africa. In Cameroon, one blogger claims the French-style education system is not of benefit to a country that needs skilled youth in order to develop. In the Ivory Coast, another blogger claims the monopoly of French telecommunications companies is exploitative. Another disagrees with the presence of French troops in Chad, where some 1,000 troops are stationed, to the increasing dissatisfaction of President Idriss Déby. These facts hardly symbolise the equality and diversity championed by La Francophonie.

Nevertheless, it could also be argued that France’s Africa policy has had some recent successes. While controversial, military interventions in Libya and the Ivory Coast, for example, ousted Muammar Gaddafi and democratically elected Laurent Gbagbo. The fact that the international community has largely followed France’s lead on military intervention in Mali could be seen as an endorsement of its dealings in Africa. When speaking about military intervention in Mali, a German diplomatic source said: “The French are the nation with the most experience working here, and they see the terrorism threat more acutely than others”. Being at the helm of international diplomacy involving French-speaking African countries could give France greater opportunity to act in its own interests, but only time will tell.

There is no denying the fact that beyond the internal squabbles, the values of diversity and mutual respect which are intrinsic to the discourse of La Francophonie were reaffirmed at this year’s summit.

To this end, France renewed its commitment to French-speaking Africa, not as a master, but purportedly as a partner. Africa, in turn, reaffirmed its quest for equality on the world stage by choosing not to abandon but reaffirm its right to the French language and commitment to the values of La Francophonie. Nevertheless, recent events suggest that even if francophone African stories continue to be told in that language, France can no longer dominate the narrative.

Ayoola Alabi is a freelance translator and interpreter. She is particularly interested in francophone and lusophone Africa.