An exploration into the current state of the French language and its future as an official political language.
The appointment of Francois Baroin as French Finance Minister sparked a discussion in the French media that is revealing of the situation the French language is in. Mr Baroin was described as competent and energetic but it was believed that he would be held back by his inability to speak English.
What’s different this time is that the cries of those who would seek to defend the language are largely muted. It is generally accepted that French maybe the language of love, but it strictly speaking is not enough if one wants to talk money with the international community.
Despite this, the status of the language, on paper at least, is rather strong. It is spoken by nearly 200 million people worldwide, is the second most learned second language, is an official UN language and is one of the EU’s “big three” languages along with German and English.
However, the above is amongst many other anecdotal signs of decline. For example, in 2006 when President Chirac described himself as “deeply shocked” when he attended a Business summit in Brussels only to hear a French businessman address the audience in English and not French. For his part, the gentleman in question said that he was using the preferred language of international business and failed to understand Chirac’s outrage.
This incident can be viewed as confirmation of the new linguistic reality of the EU post 2004 expansion. French simply did not have the edge as a second language of the new Europe – English, projected around the continent by Anglo-American popular culture, did.
The Eurovision song contest can serve as a somewhat accurate barometer of this. France itself has not won the contest since the 1970s and there has not been a French language winner since Celine Dion triumphed for Switzerland in 1988. When the rules were changed in the late 90s to allow participants to sing in languages that were not native to their own country, English was by far the main language of choice for performers seeking to reach out across cultural divides.
So, can anything be done to stop the language being swept away by an Anglophone tsunami? Well, plenty is being done within France already. There is a strict minimum amount of French language songs that can be played on French radio and there are strong subsidies for the French language film industry. (LINK) Abroad, the government spends rather a lot on initiatives such as “Alliance Francaise”, an organisation dedicated to the learning of French and the spread of French culture.
Time will tell on how big a scale and exactly how big an impact the decline of French language will have and how the homogeneous the spread of English shall be in the 21st century. On Bastille Day, however, given the strength of efforts at play to preserve French it is best to celebrate the language of Moliere rather than to prematurely mourn it.