The fading French connection


Greenway wrote this in the IHT, on November 19, 2008:

As summer was ending I went up to St. Andrews in Canada; a pretty little seaport town near where New Brunswick melts into Maine.

There are signs everywhere of a British past. The streets are named Prince of Wales, King, Queen and Princess Royal, not to mention Victoria Terrace. Up the hill is the Loyalist Burying Ground, filled with New Englanders who decided to remain British during the Revolutionary War.

But this is bilingual Canada, and in places where they don't want you to leave your car the signs say: "Stationnement Interdit" as well as "No Parking."

Canadian French may make Parisians wince, but it is French, nonetheless, jealously promoted and mandated by Canada's Francophones even in English-speaking provinces. Canadian politicians when speaking abroad often begin the first couple of paragraphs in French, which will be broadcast back home, before they revert to English.

Elsewhere, the French language isn't doing so well. A recent insult came last summer when the Ladies Professional Golf Association insisted that proficiency in English be required of its players. Libba Galloway, the organization's deputy commissioner, was quoted as saying that since the fan base and the sponsors are mostly English speaking, "we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English."

South Korea's golfing star, Se Ri Pak, said: "We play so good all over.... When you win you should give your speech in English." But the rule could run into trouble in the United States, where discrimination on the basis of national origin is illegal.

French used to be the language of diplomacy. Lingua franca means a common language by which people can communicate. But today most diplomats use English as their lingua franca. I remember covering a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which the Asian leaders really got to know each other on the golf course speaking English.

English-language schools dot the back streets in former French Indochina, and a meeting of French-speaking countries in Hanoi a few years back had difficulty finding enough local people to make up a French-speaking staff. Attempts by France to insist that French be spoken in Cambodian hospitals donated by France failed miserably when Cambodians demonstrated in favor of English.

The World Economic Forum, which is based in French-speaking Geneva, insists that English be the official language of its annual meeting in German-speaking Davos. But the forum provides a French-speaking dinner for those Francophones who need a little relief.

Some say that fear of English influences French foreign policy. It is said that France backed the murderous Hutu faction in Rwanda because France didn't want English-speaking rebels from Uganda to win. The Rwandan government prepared a 500-page document accusing France of assisting the genocide, and took Rwanda out of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, or OIF, the French-led association of French-speaking countries.

France denied the charges, but now the former French-speaking Belgian colony is switching its entire educational system from French to English.

The OIF is well financed and, with the help of the Foreign Ministry, tries to make sure that France remains a language of international communication.

The LPGA may stress English, but last summer saw what the Financial Times called an "eccentric quest for perpetual linguistic pre-eminence in the Olympic movement."

Eccentric is not the word any linguistically patriotic Frenchman would have used. After all, was not the modern Olympic movement founded by Baron Pierre de Courbertin? And did not the Belgian head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, declare in Bejing last summer that although English and French were both official languages of the OIC, French took precedence in cases of dispute?

At the Games, signs were in French, English and Chinese, although the Chinese themselves preferred to use English when not speaking their own language.

Spanish, Chinese, even Portuguese, never mind English, may be spoken more than French around the world, but France's effort to keep its beautiful language alive, to turn back the rising tide of English, and combat the dreaded American cultural tsunami has a certain doomed nobility about it.

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