I cannot help but feel a strange mix guilty and grateful, since learning French in post-colonial Africa is not without implications.
Rabat – With President Macron’s ambitious plan to sink millions of Euros into making French the third most spoken language in the world. Given the expected quadrupling of the African, Francophone population before the turn of the next century on account of a decreasing mortality rate, in many ways one could say: For better or worse,French is here to stay.
As Paris was caught in the morning fog, with bakers and window cleaners welcoming the day, my father and I made our way to the Notre-Dame to attend the early mass on Sunday. Though a sixteen-year-old in the heavily secularized West, I found myself rather dumb-founded to stumble upon a practically empty nave as my father and I took up our seats in a rear pew.
As the priest opened the sermon in French, a thin and invisible veil lowered between myself and the rest of the congregation, as usually happened whenever I found myself in exclusively French-speaking company. It did not matter. Even as a stoic atheist back then, I could do little else but sit there with an open mouth and gaze in awe of the seemingly never-ending ceiling of the church.
Masons of Paris
“Can you imagine how the average Parisian needed little convincing of the existence of God, upon leaving their wretched cottages and entering the cathedral for the first time back then? Only by divine inspiration could the masons of Paris have constructed a ceiling so high, it reached the heavens,” my father whispered to me while keeping one eye on the priest to make sure he did not disturb the sermon.
Before I could ask him about some of the stained-glass windows, the priest beckoned everyone to stand up for the ‘Sign of Peace’. While my father turned to his left to shake hands with a French couple, I found myself not within reach of anyone who’s hand I was supposed to shake.
But then I caught the eye of a little old lady who sat in the front row. It was only later that I realized she must have seen me looking around rather feverishly, when she decided to walk up all the creaking steps. The closer she got to me, the more petrified I became. And, before I realized I should have done the decent thing and walked down to her, she stood in front of me.
Instinctively my right hand somehow managed to reach out to hers. And as our hands clasped together, she took her left hand and placed it on the back of my right hand, all the while looking into my eyes. The veil was lifted.
Shed a tear
Some of my more evangelical friends back then tried to convince me it was the moment where God tried to talk to me. “You genuinely don’t consider the idea that God was working through her? As you say, you even felt tears welling up when you left the church Wouter. You can’t deny your experience may have been part of something larger than yourself.”
However, I had no intention of disowning the truth of my experience and was not suddenly convinced in the existence of an omnipotent God looking out for me. To quote the late, bare-knuckle, unapologetic atheist Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
The profound experience of ten years ago may not have turned me into a true believer, it did however leave me convinced in another way: Before I turn 30, I decided, I will be able to speak French properly. At the same time, I cannot help but feel a strange mix guilty and grateful, since learning French in post-colonial Africa is not without implications.
Acclaimed Congolese-French writer Alain Mabanckou published an open letter in response to President Macron’s plan, stating “it is one of the last instruments that allows France to say it can still dominate the world, and have a hold over its former colonies.” When looking at the history of the African continent, it is not difficult to understand Mabanckou’s point of view.
Yet, renowned Moroccan-French author Leila Slimani as the personal representative of President Macron on francophone affairs, assured audiences in an interview prior to Macon’s unveiling France did not harbor an elitist, linguistic view and regarded itself as “one of the francophone countries.”
Nevertheless, speaking French in Africa remains a hot potato. Earlier this year Said Amzazi as Minister of Education faced a severe backlash, for proposing to replace Arabic with French as the instructional language for scientific subjects in Moroccan schools. Amzazi points to the Moroccan labor market, where only a limited group of students can attain prestigious, well-paid jobs offered by French companies.
As a result of decades of Arabization, students are taught in Arabic throughout high school, leaving them poorly prepared for scientific courses in university where French is the instructional language. According to Amzazi, this linguistic gap results in an ingrained insecurity among Moroccan students who cannot communicate in French, as opposed to bilingual students who can move up the Moroccan social ladder.
Despite Amzaiz’s zeal, trenchant criticism was levied against him. The proposal was regarded as elitist and harmful to the honor and pride of Moroccans, in particular by Abdelilah Benkirane as former chairman of the Justice and Development Party.
In Ghana, under President Nana Akufo-Addo, the government is preparing to step up and embrace French in the classrooms as well. In a world where 700 million people are projected to speak French before 2050 (80% of which are Africans), Akufo-Addo held a speech in French at a Francophone summit in 2018, announcing plans to make French a mandatory subject for all high school students.
But in Ghana, criticism is being mobilized against the top-down dominance of French too. Over 50 indigineous languages are spoken in Ghana, and critics fear for the longevity of these long-cherished, linguistic traditions. Akufo-Addo wanted to reassure the Ghanese people at the summit by stating, “our goal is to live, one day in a bilingual Ghana, that is English and French, together with our indigenous languages.”
For better or worse
The added value of French is in many ways apparent, as it opens more company doors both in Africa and abroad, flattens language barriers between people from Africa, Europe, and the Americas and opens up a world of ideas, politics, literature and cinema from Francophone countries.
Animated conversations with taxi drivers, being able to speak with tourists visiting Morocco from Tunisia, Congo and Canada, sceptically listening to a group of middle-aged men who are not convinced sub-Saharan migrants work to earn their keep; these are all moments I could not have experienced it without learning French in Morocco.
Nevertheless, as someone from l’occident, I think it is crucial to understand the legacy of the French language within Africa. Intellectual Frantz Fanon dedicated the better part of his career combatting the devastating effects of the ingrained inferiority complex in Francophone countries. The very least one can do is recognize this colonial legacy.
Whether French will be spoken a hundred years from now I do not know. But for now, I would say: For better or worse, French is here to stay.