From the desk of Unfrench Frenchman:
Most readers of this blog are probably used to the wild statistical claims made by French speakers regarding the global importance of French. 120 million native speakers, 2 or 300 million secondary speakers and 500 million who have been exposed to the language, we hear. They also rarely miss a chance to tell us how the vibrant demographics of West Africa means an absolute increase in global Francophone numbers. How can one speak of a decline of the French language when absolute numbers of French speakers are exploding in Africa, they ask.
Let us forget the exposed-to-the-language category as it is too meaningless to even discuss. Now 120 million native speakers of French worldwide? Well, according to what source one turns to, numbers vary considerably. This is because of the sheer difficulty of making such counts. In France, native speakers of French are concentrated in the mainland and constitute approximately 80-90% of the mainland population, an estimate which can hardly be more accurate because of the many dialects and regional languages and the numerous first, second and third-generation immigrants. Many of those immigrants may use French as their main language, but it is not the first tongue they learned, so that their French, albeit fluent, distinctly lacks native quality in pronunciation, accent, grammar and vocabulary. 80 to 90% of mainland French amounts to a population of 48 to 54 million. French overseas territories comprise a population of native speakers that is no more than one million, the rest of the six million residing in those territories calling local or foreign tongues their native languages. Suisse Romande and the rest of Switzerland ar home to about one million French speakers, Quebec is 80% native French speaking, which amounts to 5.5 m, while up to a million native Francophones are to be found in the rest of Canada. Belgium is home to 4 million at the utmost, the US to 2. Smaller communities of native French speakers are also found in other countries. They cannot comprise more than 3 million, considering that the number of French nationals living outside of France is less than 2 million according to official French sources, ("a population of almost two million, which is the number of French citizens residing outside our frontiers."). Total: 71.5 to 77.5. A far cry from the numbers usually claimed by the priests and fanatics of la Francophonie!
Needless to say, secondary speakers of any language will be still more difficult to count, and most countries that have French as an official language conveniently happen to be among the poorest, unhappiest places on earth, ones fraught with war and hunger and generally devoid of any infrastructure. Government presence in those countries is far less felt than in the first world and limits itself to raw exploitation and repression. The State generally has no means or intention of providing its people with decent education in any language, let alone of conducting language censuses within its borders.
This is why numbers of French speakers cannot be accurately estimated in most former African colonies of France, which makes it equally impossible to extrapolate from the total population growth experienced by those countries an overall increase of French speakers.
Africa is home to very few native speakers of French, and those native speakers are limited to a small urban population of settlers from France and Belgium that is steadily diminishing because of low total fertility rates and repatriations forced by growing social strife in countries such as the Ivory Coast. The local African population in the so-called pré carré Africain is very loyal to native idioms and has no social incentive for relinquishing their use as many linguas francas other than French compete for speakers (think of Yoruba, Peul, Arabic, Wolof, Bantu to name but a few), nor would there be any advantage for them in adopting French as their everyday language of choice when French control over their economies, by hampering the development of the labor market, has made it near impossible to obtain the kind of employment that requires the knowledge of European languages. Except in Abidjan, French in West Africa is something you learn at school, if you ever went there, and seldom use afterwards.
French in Africa is nothing but a secondary language, a non-native language that, in the everyday life of most Africans, is used as a third or fourth-choice lingua franca, whenever Haoussa, Peul, Lingala or Arabic won't do. Its status is therefore fragile. Is it endangered?
The dynamism of a lingua franca with such a limited base of native speakers as is French is not so much dependent on absolute numbers of speakers as it is on its geographical spread.French is only useful as a lingua franca inasmuch as it is spoken on a wide territory. If French can be said in decline as an international language, it is because it is used as such in ever fewer countries. French used to have currency among indigenous populations of Laos, Vietnam, Kamputchea, Lebanon, Rwanda. In all of these countries, French now is hardly more of a lingua franca than would be German or Dutch, and much less of one than English is. All of these nations have been lost for la Francophonie in the past decades while no new country has been gained.
Steep losses for the proud French.
But the hemorrhage is not about to stop. As France becomes unable to afford the military cost of maintaining its African empire, countries like Tchad or Centrafrique are bound to fall sooner or later and go the way of Zaire or Rwanda.
France cannot even rely on more stable parts of West Africa to carry on the colonial heritage. That region has no love lost for France or the culture she peddles. West African nations will not be the cultural youth elixir that Wallonia, France, Suisse Romande and Quebec, all declining, ageing places, desperately need: sick and tired of being the serfs of France, the populations of France's former African colonies are turning more and more to the non-French speaking world for investors or emigration. Thus the Democratic Republic of Congo invites Chinese investors to exploit its riches while young men and women from Senegal or Morocco learn English to move to America and huge numbers of Beninese, Cameroonian, Nigerien and Malian expatriates seek work in Lagos, the English speaking capital of Nigeria.
The French cultural empire is crumbling away in its last stronghold. France is about to lose the last bastion of international Francophonie to the rest of world.