Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

French Concern over Dwindling Francophone Influence in the Maghreb

Although France is attempting to impose its culture and language, it is not making it easier for people to join the purported "Francophone family.”

Francophone Influence in Maghreb
France’s President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the press during a bilateral meeting at the 18th Francophone countries Summit in Djerba, on November 19, 2022. Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) has endeavored to host its summit with the presence of the heads of French-speaking states and governments connected with the organization on average every two years since 1986.

However, on the sidelines of the summit held in Tunisia in November 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron shared his concerns about the decline in the role of Francophone culture in the Maghreb region. Furthermore, he announced a project to restore its position in these countries, sparking a flurry of discussions in the media.

The interest in La Francophone as a linguistic and cultural entity with political and strategic implications for France’s continued power and influence in its former colonies dominated much of the conversation.

Additionally, Macron’s remarks lend weight to fears surrounding the erosion of French culture in these nations and the degree to which it is related to elite political priorities and cultural changes.

The extent to which these changes have affected the OIF’s function as the organization that unifies French-speaking nations raises doubts in light of all this.

The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie: a cultural space with political goals

Onsim Roccolo, a French geographer, coined the term “francophone” in 1880 to refer to France and its many colonies as “the geographical space that unites the French speakers in the world.”

The term did not, however, appear in political discourse over the ensuing decades, likely since there was no need for it during the colonial era, which demanded the de facto subordination of the colonies to French rule.

After the colonies gained their independence, and due to the need to frame them within a comprehensive grouping with France, the term was revived in the first official conference of the Francophone countries in 1960.

The Francophone was then accepted “on a theoretical level” as a bridge between these nations and France, allowing it to maintain a sizable French-speaking population in many of its former colonies.

The decision to convene this conference in the wake of these countries independence may have been the first sign of La Francophonie’s political dimensions, which gradually expanded beyond its ostensible cultural guise. France desired to keep its former colonies inside its sphere of influence in order to counteract a potential Soviet Union drive at the time.

The following decade saw the establishment of a federation of universities in these countries, an organization of parliamentarians, an international federation of Francophone teachers, and an international council of the French language.

These ultimately led to the official establishment of the umbrella organization in 1970, before summits were held at the level of presidents and heads of government in 1986.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the OIF began to play a deeper political role due to French concerns regarding the unchecked expansion of U.S. influence around the world, including in Africa.

The outcome has been a progressive growth of the organization from 21 to 54 member states, plus seven partners and 27 observer members. The organization’s subsequent summits thereafter started to expand and center on political matters of relevance to France in an effort to strengthen the strategic ties between Paris and the countries it once colonized. Consequently, many today deem the organization a political club looking to preserve France’s international influence.

Francophone as a tool of French influence in the Maghreb

Over the past decades, the French language has maintained a leading position in all the countries of the Maghreb, including Algeria, which to this day refuses to join the OIF. Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania, on the other hand, are member states.

Many of these nations’ intellectual elites have relied on the Francophone as a gateway to the rest of the world due to the language’s dominance, making France the cultural space through which they can gain access to the West.

In contrast to other languages, such as English, which is the most widely spoken language in the world, French-language media and literature have greatly influenced public discourse in these nations.

Arabs in North Africa who have had to coexist with the French for generations have been profoundly influenced in terms of their cultural, academic, and professional knowledge prior to the Francophone becoming a defining aspect of their identity.

According to a report by the French-Language Observatory of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, 52% of Tunisians, 35% of Moroccans, and 33% of Algerians indicated that they use French on a daily basis as a means of communication. In other words, not only does the French language dominate cultural life in these countries, but also influences daily discourse.

In practical terms, France realizes that dominating the language of communication also means dominance over the means through which individuals receive information, which gives it an exceptional influence on public opinion in these countries.

The fact that French is the language of business, science, diplomatic communication, public administration, and corporate management means it instantly offers French economic and political institutions a significant advantage in the Maghreb. Given the population’s proficiency in French, it also grants France preference in recruiting talent and expertise from these nations as needed.

This justifies Macron’s concerns over the French language’s waning influence in the Maghreb nations. It also explains why, on the sidelines of the conference in November intended to implement the “Supporting the Language Acquisition of Students” program, French Foreign Minister Karen Colonna and EU Ambassador Marquis Cornaro negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia’s Education Minister Fathi Slaoti.

The program will allow teaching French as a primary language in Tunisian schools while adhering to set criteria. Tunisia reportedly agreed to this scheme under duress since it sought a French loan of 200 million euros.

By increasing the number of students enrolled in more than 500 French educational institutions by the year 2030, France has been attempting to conduct a comprehensive revision of its strategy to promote the use of the French language.

In order to compete with American counterparts and provide Francophone students in former French colonies the option of pursuing a university education in French, France is likewise looking to expand the number of French university branches.

Reasons for the decline of the Francophone in the Arab Maghreb

As Macron has highlighted, the French language has seen a significant drop in these countries. One factor is pragmatic, as many young people have chosen to move from French to English in their academic studies in order to keep up with the usage of English as a major international language in business, technology, and research.

An aversion to using French in public life in these nations has also grown as a result of the rift between France and the peoples of North Africa, as well as the restrictions placed on those applying for immigration or entry visas from the Maghreb countries.

In other words, many believe that although France is attempting to impose its culture and language, it is not making it easier for people to join the purported “Francophone family.” The emergence of right-wing discourse within France itself and the focus on identity, immigration, and political Islam by French political groups have also played a role.

While these developments are not expected to immediately weaken the role of the OIF in the short term, they will affect the dominance of the Francophone within some of the body’s countries in the long term. This will inevitably curtail France’s sway.

In this regard, France must revise its policy toward the people of the OIF nations in order to allow for the formation of coalitions based on shared interests rather than solely cultural hegemony.

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