The Francophone World, a Potemkin Village

Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Stephen Smith

By the end of this year, the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) is due to release a new four-year assessment of the status of French – it should rather be a Plural: of French languages – in the world. Its last report, published in November 2014, was excessively self-congratulatory and optimistic. It hyped the “good news” that the number of Francophones in the world – about 275 million - had increased by 7 percent since 2010. But, for one, it remained unclear what level of proficiency these figures reflected as the OIF went on to state that 212 of the 275 million used French “regularly”. What does that mean? Furthermore, the increase of French speakers was largely due to sub-Saharan Africa where their number had soared by 15 percent. This was not necessarily good news for the competition with other international languages in terms of knowledge production in French as measured, for example, by the number of books released or the number of scientific publications written in French. In addition, even in the most Francophone countries in Africa, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, only 60 percent of the population speaks French – without always being able to write it. In both countries, French is the sole official language, i.e. all interactions between the state and its citizenry are supposed to be conducted in the language of Molière. Doesn’t this mean that, what is “good news” for the OIF, may well be bad news for state capacity and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, the subcontinent of the Francophone future? In Senegal, France’s first colony south of the Sahara, French is the only official language but, according to the OIF data, only 29 percent of the population use it. Evidently, this can’t reflect the reality on the ground as it is inconceivable that more than two thirds of the Senegalese population live “outside” of the state administration. In fact, Wolof has long since superseded French in the exchanges between the Senegalese state and its citizenry. People are living in parallel universes, the “official sphere” on the one side and, on the other, the de facto reality of a postcolonial state under enormous demographic pressure – as is the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. In short, the OIF would be well advised to acknowledge the need of a reality check before publishing its next quadrennial report later this year. Otherwise, the Francophone world it depicts will merely be a Potemkin village.