French President Emmanuel Macron wants to give Donald Trump a run for his money.
In November 2017, France’s young and new president, Emmanuel Macron, profited from a visit to Africa to launch a new, updated approach to postcolonial conquest. He predicted that French would become the first language of Africa. He called his audience to mobilize for the cause and counted on the assistance of the celebrated Congolese novelist, Alain Mabanckou, to lead the campaign.
Macron’s linguistic ambition to put French first may be his way of competing with Donald Trump’s America First.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The top performer, who acquires the power to discredit, humiliate and eventually replace the second
Macron demonstrated his iron will to succeed by tapping violently on the dais as he affirmed French would be the first language of Africa. He patronizingly mocked and disparaged what he called the fad of using English (“un effet de mode pour la langue anglaise”), as if he wasn’t aware that English is now well established as a lingua franca that thereby serves a practical purpose. He presents linguistic rivalry as a contest for dominance, a distant but troubling echo of the feverish race engaged by the European nations in the 19th century to colonize territories in Africa.
Mabanckou may well have been sensitive to the manner and tone of Macron’s discourse when he presented his project. Addressing an African audience, Macron appeared to be whipping them up, with the demeanor and style of a seasoned white coach with a team of young, black athletes: “Let’s take this challenge together, let’s do it, let’s carry this through.” The aggressive, intimidating force of his words and tone is more obvious in French than in the English translation.
With the age of European political and military empires clearly past, Macron has proudly identified what he termed a new challenge (défi): linguistic conquest. He invoked “la francophonie” — the community of French-speaking nations — and promised to seize a new opportunity to “make French the “first language of Africa,” pompously adding, after a pregnant pause, “and perhaps of the world.” Enlisting for this noble task the celebrated francophone Congolese novelist, Alain Mabanckou, he couldn’t imagine anything but gratitude for the honor of being asked to be the flagbearer of the project.
Macron apparently hadn’t reckoned with the fact that some Africans have a sense of pride. Mabanckou didn’t react immediately, but when he did, the champion returned the challenge against the prince and commander. He pointed out that Francophonie as represented by Macron was nothing more than an extension of France’s postcolonial foreign policy. But he went further, affirming that French didn’t need to be “protected,” least of all by France, since French lives as a language through the cultures of many nations. As the newspaper Figaro summed it up, France needs Francophonie far more that Francophonie needs France.
In the decades following World War II, the French worried about and legislated against the “English invasion” of their language. Governments tried to keep trendy English vocabulary at bay and even succeeded in imposing the word “ordinateur” where most other European languages adopted “computer.” This was a defensive strategy. But Macron is going on the attack, to defeat the dominance of English, and thought he could mobilize the docile Africans to lead the battle.
The designated general, Alain Mabanckou, has refused his commission. In the wake of his refusal, the president and more than a third of the directors of Alliance Française followed suit, effectively gutting the project. Macron, who famously said that France needed a “Jupiterian head of state,” is slowly coming to grips with the fact that not only are some of his gods rebelling, but also personalities of the lowly mortal race outside the community of the gods, who have traditionally been considered as the playthings of the gods.
The Jupiterian white leader has now been challenged by a Promethean black novelist on the grounds that, if he really cared about the French speakers in Africa, he would give priority to combating the sanguinary dictators and corrupt administrations that have turned so many postcolonial regimes into obedient pawns of the former colonialists and made of democracy itself a farce. Macron finds far less motivating the mission of correcting the massive injustice and looting of resources still carried out by the former colonial masters with the complicity of docile African governments they have consistently supported than the idea of having French supplant English as the Africa’s and the world’s lingua franca.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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