By Raphael Blet
As March 20th marked the International Day of la Francophonie, also known as Fête Internationale de la Francophonie, major cities around the globe geared-up to celebrate the “month of Francophonie”.
From New York to Hong Kong, events honouring French language and culture dominated March’s entertainment scene.
But besides being a linguistic tool, La Francophonie does far more, making it a unique and incomparable element of France’s global identity.
While a “francophone” is someone who speaks French, “La Francophonie” refers to much more than this.
The term has its roots in 1880, when a geographer named Onésime Reclus first used the word to describe French-speaking territories, then part of France (with the exception of Rwanda and Congo which were under Belgian authority).
Although supporting France’s colonial expansion, the soldier turned geographer brought forward a unique conception of identity, still visible in today’s France.
While the dominant conception of identity and classification was based on race and tribes, Reclus’ new school of thought emphasised language as means to unite populations.
Despite the controversies that may surround Reclus’ vision – of which the ultimate aim was to expand on concepts of “humanism” and a “mission of civilisation” – his approach to intercultural and later international relations has proven successful.
Francophonie was surely useful to France’s control of its colonies but it also gave bore fruit during the post-colonial period, helping France in building relations with newly independent territories.
On March 20th 1970, in the Nigerien capital city of Niamey – eight years after France lost its last colony Algeria- that Francophonie became an official organisation. Since then, the organisation known as Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie has welcomed some 84 members, some of which have never been colonised by France.
La culture et les politiques
There are two major conceptions of Francophonie: cultural and political, both of which are correlated.
While cultural diplomacy isn’t unique to France, it is fair to say that France has been able to distinguish itself from its counterparts in the strength and breadth of its cultural outreach.
In addition of having 100 government led cultural institutes (Institut Français) with 128 branches worldwide, France has 801 independent language centres (Alliance Française) in 132 countries. In Hong Kong alone, Alliance Française has three centres, offering locals the possibility to affordably learn the language of Voltaire.
In 2014, there were 274 million French speakers worldwide, 125 million people learning French and half a million overseas teachers according to the International Organisation of Francophonie (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie).
Besides cultural centres, France has a network of 492 French schools worldwide, 74 of them being under direct control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the others being either private or partly funded by the state. Between 2014 and 2015, French schools were home to 330,000 primary to high school students, 205,000 being of foreign nationality.
A Hong Kong
Hong Kong is, in fact, an archetypal example of France’s successful cultural export. Throughout the year, French culture is constantly present in the local scene. From the upcoming le French May and the French Film Festival to the French Theater Festival or even the Hong Kong Arts Festival which has a significant number of French performers, France maintains a big cultural footprint throughout the year.
Lately, France has brought cultural diplomacy a step further last November by opening a branch of the renowned Louvre Museum (Musée du Louvre) on a 30-year contract in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, supporting France’s strategic interests in the area. Indeed, Abu Dhabi is home to a multimodal French base, allowing the country’s navy and air force easy access to the Middle East.
Unlike Ivory Coast, Djibouti or Mali (where France has a military presence), the United Arab Emirates were not French colonies; neither are they French speaking territories. The opening of the museum not only familiarises the host country with France, but also shows their creativeness in promoting their soft power.
Within the Asian context, China too has been using language as a tool of international relations. The ex-Portuguese colony of Macau – where Portuguese remains an official language – has been designated as a hub by China to develop its ties with Lusophone countries. The US$1 billion China-Portuguese Speaking Countries (PSCs) Cooperation and Development Fund was moved from Beijing to Macau last June.
Apart from France, other countries play an indispensable role in spreading French language worldwide. Those include some African countries, Canada’s Quebec region, and Lebanon. However, some will argue that France is by far the leader. There are indeed sufficient elements to assert that France is de-facto leading since it outnumbers other French speaking countries in many aspects.
La Francophonie is unique, a crucial element of France’s soft power.
So, as the month ends, Vive la francophonie!
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Raphael Blet is currently studying in Hong Kong and pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism. Originally from France, he is planning to be based Hong Kong, a city which he describes as having a “unique socio-cultural landscape” that he wishes to further explore in the future.
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