“The French Language Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You!”

Who better than this jovial linguist to champion the French language? Bernard Cerquiglini holds a doctorate in literature, formerly directed the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, and has been the vice-president of the Fondation des Alliances Françaises for the last two years. He also hosts the television show Merci professeur ! on TV5MONDE, and has recently published Les Mots immigrés, a history of the French language in story form, co-authored with Académie Française member Erik Orsenna.
Bernard Cerquiglini.

France-Amérique: For the very first time, the Summit of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) is being held in North Africa – in Djerba, Tunisia, on November 19 and 20. How does this event make you feel?

Bernard Cerquiglini: Optimistic, above all! I have attended five summits. And at each one, I have felt the same emotion while watching some 50 heads of state debate the problems of our time in French for a day and a half. It’s miraculous! There is just one international organization founded on a language, and that language is French. (The Commonwealth is not founded on English, but on the crown; it is to the British monarchy what the OIF is to the French language.) Unfortunately, neither the Tunisian president Kais Saied nor his government appear to be particularly favorable towards this summit. Some Northern countries that uphold human rights and democracy, particularly Canada, refuse to go to Tunisia. I am therefore worried that this event will not live up to our expectations for la francophonie in North Africa.

Algeria has decided to teach English in elementary schools. Is this a measure taken against France?

Algeria and France are like an old married couple. Theirs is a relationship of resentment, bitterness, passion, and love. They have been through highs and lows. The end of August saw a particular high during Emmanuel Macron’s visit. Political problems aside, Algeria is a Francophone country. Today, anyone walking through the streets of Algiers will hear more French spoken than at the time of colonization! The summit is diplomatic Francophonie. But there is also a tangible, collective Francophonie. I spent eight years directing the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), the world’s biggest association of universities and, once again, the only one founded on a language. This group is not political, but instead works for scientific cooperation and development aid. And Algeria is a member of the AUF with 55 participating institutions. That’s la francophonie!

Coming back to the summit in Djerba, what is the purpose of this sort of major event?

Its first purpose is one of symbolism. But beyond that, there is a real political drive to the OIF. It supports causes such as elementary-school education, film festivals, and libraries. The TV5MONDE network, one of the four operators within the OIF, is watched by 440 million households. There is also a diplomatic aspect. We may have never stopped – or even foreseen – a war in Africa, but some 50 leaders meeting every two years to talk about the world in French is not nothing!

According to Simon Kuper, a Financial Times journalist based in Paris, French is set to be replaced by English as an international language of communication. What do you think about that?

I would point out that a British person wrote that, not an Uzbek! In the same vein, a publisher preparing a global history of preconceptions asked me to contribute. The preconception I chose was: “The French language is finished.” At one point in the article, I wrote that we have been convinced that the French language is done for since the 18th century. It all started with Voltaire, who believed that it had reached its peak with La Fontaine, Racine, and Quinault, and that the only way for it to go was down. We could make a whole list of books published since which have heralded the death of the French language. One such work is André Thérive’s 1923 work Le français, langue morte ? As a linguistic historian, I am not overly concerned. But as a former civil servant preoccupied with linguistic policy, I also know that we cannot leave things as they are. We are not in some fantasy land. There is a language trade, a battle of languages. It cannot be denied that French has lost its footing on the international stage. The general delegates of the French language – and I was one of them – produce annual figures about the status of French at the European Commission. And the figures are dreadful.

If we are to believe the predictions of the OIF, Sub-Saharan Africa will be home to 600 million Francophones in 2050, around 85% of all French speakers. How likely are these forecasts?

We were just talking about French as an international language. We are now moving on to French as a maternal language, the French of those who speak it. It is clear that demographers are insisting on the natural expansion of the African Francosphere through birth rates. However, I do not believe that the French language will be saved by African women per se, but rather by African schools. The fact that children are being born and speaking French is a very good thing. But if these children do not learn to read and write, if they do not go to elementary school, high school, and university – this is the former president of the AUF speaking – then what is the point? In the coming years, a million school teachers must be recruited in Africa, and thousands of schools must be built. If governments and the OIF do not rise to this educational challenge, then what is the point of these figures?

Some are also questioning the use of learning French if it will not help them find a job and earn a living. Is that why economic Francophonie has become so important?

This is indeed one of the leading themes of the OIF. I have seen it grow over the last 20 years. As Jacques Attali once said, la francophonie is a market. Africa is developing, and with it an increasingly large middle class. We should remember that trade is easier when you speak the buyers’ language. Birth rates, education, the market, and trade therefore have to work together. This is the only way that French will preserve its place in the world.

© Mathieu Persan

How do you see the future of French in the United States, where more than 1.2 million people speak the language on a daily basis?

We cannot ignore that everyone speaks English in the United States, apart from California, where there are native and monolingual Spanish speakers. Spanish is seen as a language of immigrants in the U.S., whereas French is viewed as chic. It’s chic to speak French, and to visit France. This card needs to be played, and we’re playing it! I was actually lucky enough to live in Louisiana for three and a half years, and there are around 80,000 French speakers there. This is partly thanks to the work of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, a state agency that recruits teachers from countries including France, Belgium, Canada, and Algeria. There is a reason why Louisiana joined the OIF as an observer member in 2018. There is therefore a Francophone reality in the United States. It is diverse, and the French and Quebecer diplomatic services are doing what is needed to maintain it.

French is declining very slowly in Canada, not in terms of the number of speakers, but in terms of their percentage. What is your view of this?

Some 30 or 35 years ago, many could have said that French was finished in Quebec. The first time I went to Montreal, people spoke to me in English. Even though the current figures are somewhat alarming [French is continuing to decline in Canada, according to the latest census], the Quebecers have saved their language and they are continuing to save it. The excellent “Law 96” passed last June has made French the sole official language of Quebec. It has been welcomed unanimously, aside from the Anglophones.

The new law, which also imposes the use of French in small businesses, among other things, has ruffled a few feathers. In Quebec, it now seems that Anglophones are the ones who feel victimized.

We all take it in turns!

Would you not agree that French should not become a language of oppression?

No, that does not fit with our values. However, in terms of linguistic policy, France owes a lot to Quebec. For centuries, our linguistic policy was strictly a question of heritage. We defended our language. This is the role of the Académie Française, and it fulfills it marvelously, with an official dictionary and symbols such as the dome above the institution. But it is not enough. Since the Quiet Revolution and the 1977 Charter of the French Language (known as “Law 101”), the Quebecers have shown us that language is also a social practice with a dimension of citizenship. We live, receive education, and work in French.

In reaction to the steamroller of the English language, should we therefore legislate against it in France?

Laws must be regularly refreshed. The Toubon Law [which made French mandatory in education, work, trade, and public services], which I know well because I helped draft it, dates back to 1994. It is high time that we revisited it. There are sectors such as the Internet, advertising, and brand names that would benefit from additional regulation.

The domination of the English language also spreads through Anglicisms. Which are your least favorite?

As a language historian, I know that Anglicisms come and go. If you read René Etiemble’s 1964 book Parlez-vous franglais ?, none of the Anglicisms decried by the author – such as “milk bar,” “shake-hand,” or “drink on the rocks” – has survived. We should therefore take this trend with a grain of salt. When an Anglicism becomes fixed in French, it is because we require it, such as “weekend,” which is not the same as fin de semaine. Wise people know that languages exchange words, and I always remind myself that 45% of English vocabulary originally comes from French. However, as a senior civil servant specialized in linguistic policy, two things worry me. The first is Anglicism as an unnecessary luxury. There are beautiful French words that have a history, a meaning, and we replace them with obscure English terms. Take “compliance,” for example. This word does not exist in French. However, we do have conformité and légalité that work perfectly well. If you talk to me about la conformité avec la loi, or la cohérence, I know what you are talking about. But I don’t understand la compliance. The second is more serious. Many are worried about the introduction of too many Anglicisms without realizing that the real problem is the abandonment of the French language. The people of Quebec distinguish between the body of the language and its status. The body of the language can be more or less infiltrated by foreign words. It can take it. However, the status cannot. I fear that French is losing its status in certain areas. Just look at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, which now focuses more on publications written in English. And Renault now conducts its managerial meetings in Paris in English. That’s really serious!

On a more optimistic note, according to Le Monde, anyone looking at the words included in the 2023 editions of the Larousse and Robert dictionaries will see that French is astonishingly flexible and allows for immense creativity. That is hardly what we are used to hearing…

I wrote a book about French in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chroniques d’une langue française en résilience. What fascinated me the most was the creativity of our language. During the pandemic, we spoke French! This was partly through the revival of old terms. You don’t use the word écouvillon [“swab,” or “bottle brush”] every day, do you? Nor quarantaine [“quarantine”]! We even created new words, such as septaine and quatorzaine [a quarantine for 7 and 14 days respectively]. What are the reasons for this ingenuity? The main one is an increased collective awareness. We are united by language. And faced with a pandemic, a time when we had to stick together, we had to speak French. Italian, a language very close to my heart, used the English word “lockdown.” This word was never used in France. We had confinement, after which we created déconfinement for the end of a lockdown, followed by reconfinement and redéconfinement! A whole lexical family was born within weeks. As you can see, if the French language tries, it can resist and really show its dynamism.

Why are you not a member of the Académie Française? They might need your skills!

I could offer an amusing answer: When you are a member of Oulipo [Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, an inventive writing group founded in 1960] and the Royal Academy of Belgium, you count yourself lucky! Several members of the Académie Française and the perpetual secretary Hélène Carrère d’Encausse approached me, I have no problem saying that, and I offered a clear response. Our professions are not the same. The Académie defines the norm – and does an excellent job of it. When anyone hesitates or wonders about a new word, they make a decision. My role is not to define the norm, but rather to study it.

This interview was made possible thanks to Jonathan Goldberg, the founder of the blog Le Mot Juste en Anglais, which offers “a bridge between the Francophone world and Anglo-American culture.”


Interview published in the November 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.