The Irony of La Francophonie

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As the Summit of La Francophonie begins in Djerba in Tunisia, the organization and the francophone world it represents are faced with a profound irony. There will be no shortage of dignitaries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister Mélanie Joly and French President Emmanuel Macron will join other leaders in extolling the French language and the shared values of La Francophonie. But on the streets of French-speaking Africa, anti-French sentiments are palpable. In the capital of Burkina Faso, people set fire to the barricades outside the French embassy and crowds in a provincial town stoned the French cultural centre.

In Chad, the police fired teargas and water cannons to disperse protestors angered by French support for an unconstitutional transfer of power to a Military Council. In Mali, France has been forced to withdraw its troops and abandon its decade-long operation to fight jihadist insurgents. In Niger, demonstrators chanted ‘Down with France’, demanding the departure of French soldiers. In Côte d’Ivoire, Algeria and Morocco, animosity towards France is increasing, with Algeria’s President describing the French language as a ‘spoils of war’ and introducing English education in primary schools. ‘Non à la France’ is the collective sentiment expressed by thousands of Africans, especially the youth. 

Yet, Africa is central to the future of La Francophonie and to the language of French. The number of French speakers in Africa is higher than in Europe. By 2050, more than 70% of the world’s francophones will be Africans. Put differently, La Francophonie will be increasingly African, but Africa may be increasingly anti-French.

La Francophonie is, of course, more than France. The organization was founded in Niger in 1970 and consists of 88 states and governments, many of which are in the Global South. Nevertheless, France remains the undisputed hegemon, economically as the main donor to La Francophonie and ideationally as the historical centre of the French-speaking world. At the same time, La Francophonie is haunted by France’s colonial history, and many Africans make little distinction between La Francophonie and Francafrique, the derogatory term for France’s sphere of influence on the continent in the post-independence period. In the words of the Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou, ‘La Francophonie is unfortunately still perceived as the continuation of France’s foreign policy in its former colonies.’ 

Africa’s young population is hungry for change. Many regard France and La Francophonie as relics of a bygone era, serving primarily to protect the old guard of anti-democratic leaders.

Mabanckou’s statement is from an open letter to President Macron, written after the President had invited him to participate in a project of reflection on the role of La Francophonie and the French language. As the first French President born after the end of colonialism, Macron has done more than his predecessors to reset the country’s relationship with Africa, including returning looted artifacts and asking forgiveness for his country’s role in the Rwanda genocide. Still, resentment against France has continued to grow. 

The reasons are many. Africa’s young population is hungry for change. Many regard France and La Francophonie as relics of a bygone era, serving primarily to protect the old guard of anti-democratic leaders. For them, as for Mabanckou, La Francophonie has failed to condemn ‘the autocratic regimes, the rigged elections, the lack of freedom of expression… of monarchs who express themselves and subjugate their populations in French’. The incoherence of French foreign policy has also played a part, with President Macron denouncing the coup in Mali but supporting the unconstitutional transfer of power in Chad. 

Most importantly, perhaps, the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel is fuelling the anti-French flame. Despite deploying more than 5,000 troops to the region, France has been unable to stop the spread of militant jihadists and their violent attacks on local communities. While it is unfair and simplistic to blame France alone, their failure and eventual withdrawal from Mali have cast doubt on the intentions and helpfulness of French involvement and damaged its prestige.

For African leaders who themselves lack a clear strategy in the fight against militants, scapegoating France is a welcome diversion strategy – even if it does not solve their political and security problems. Military leaders and coup-makers, in particular, have been at the forefront of fomenting populist French resentment. In some of these countries, Russia and its mercenary Wagner Group have eagerly stepped into the void left by a retreating France.

For La Francophonie, and for Canada as a key member and the organization’s second largest donor, the challenges are immense. As the leaders of the French-speaking world gather in Djerba, the Secretary General of La Francophonie has called on member states to redouble their efforts to ensure that the French language is maintained and protected. They should worry more about saving La Francophonie from the wrath of anti-Frenchness. French is now an African language, vibrant and alive, but the institution dedicated to its promotion is declining in relevance and popular legitimacy.  

Canada can play an important role. Unlike France, Canada does not have a colonial history in francophone Africa and could help sever the links – real and perceived – between La Francophonie and Francafrique. Any such strategy, however, will be crucially dependent on France and its continued interests in the African continent.

Rita Abrahamsen is Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) at the University of Ottawa.

Arsène Brice Bado is the deputy director of the Institute of Dignity and Human Rights at the Centre de Recherche et d’Action pour la Paix (CERAP) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

This blog was first published by our friends at CIPS. Read it on their excellent website here.

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