Let us shun the soi-disant language of culture and diplomacy till the French government stops testing its nuclear weapons in the PacificBy John Ryle • 9 September 1995 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,140 words
It’s a tough time to be French, at least if you care about world opinion. Eco-activists have been attacking French embassies across the world in protest against nuclear tests in the Pacific. Who can blame Tahitians for fighting fire with fire? One can even sympathise with the Sun newspaper—and that would be a first—when it tells Jacques Chirac to do his testing in St Tropez.
The potent confluence of anti-imperialist feeling and environmental activism, intensified in some cases, it must be said, by unabashed chauvinism (didn’t the French invent that word?) is a response to the actions of the government of France. The people of France, of course, are a different matter. They deserve better from their politicians, as do the Tahitians—as do we all. Meanwhile, though, French government gunboat diplomacy—and indifference in the face of protests against the threat to terrestrial and aquatic life—makes them look like the Serbs of the Pacific. Recollect that this is the government that, back in 1985, sent secret agents to blow up the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbour, in New Zealand, five thousand kilometers to the west.
The French government’s pursuit of the scarlet pimpernels of Greenpeace in the Pacific, both then and now, is eclipsed by their cynical adventurism in Africa. Last year, France broke the international isolation of the military regime in Sudan, supplying unspecified assistance to this brutal dictatorship for a blitzkrieg against rebels in Southern Sudan—where the Khartoum regime is attempting to impose its own brand of Islamist government on the South’s largely non-Muslim inhabitants. Worse, in Rwanda, French military support for the ousted government and its defeated army, the FAR, responsible for the Rwandan genocide, has continued despite a UN arms embargo. A report by the US-based Arms Project of Human Rights Watch documents how French weaponry and military training are still being provided to the leaders of FAR, now in exile in Zaire, even as the UN seeks their arraignment on charges of crimes against humanity.
The twilight of European influence in the Pacific
What is France doing in such places in any case? In the South Pacific it is a vestigial colonial presence, eking out the twilight of European influence in the region. There’s a grim logic to the fact that the final stage in the European destruction of the indigenous cultures of the Pacific, which began with the arrival of naval adventurers in the 18th century, should conclude with one of these wisps of land, these dots and commas scattered on the ocean, being transformed by force into an uninhabitable, radioactive, aquatic desert.
But in the case of Rwanda and Burundi these countries were not even French: they were Belgian colonies; not in the French sphere of influence at all. France has no historical interest in east central Africa and has no economic interest to protect there now. Why, then, is it so set on supporting the grisly mass-murderers of FAR? The answer, bizarrely, seems to be, at least partly, linguistic solidarity. It’s because they speak the French language.
The largely Tutsi rebel army, the RPF, that threw out the genocidal FAR and now forms the current government in Rwanda, was backed by Uganda. Many of its members grew up in exile in Uganda, where English is the national language. So the adherents of the RPF speak English as a lingua franca. In the Rwandan case French pride in the mother tongue, the language they taught generations of evolués to speak in their West African territories, seems to have obscured all considerations of human rights and good governance. Thus the French government continues to provide clandestine support to members of the former government in exile in Zaire even while the UN calls for their extradition. And it is because they are francophone—while their opponents, as the jokey colonial-era phrase had it, are anglo-saxophone. All this from the country that invented the notion of universal human rights.
Adhesion to the idea of language as an instrument of empire is a constant theme in France’s imperial history. Hence the idea, assiduously promulgated by French diplomats, that French is the language of diplomacy. French colonial authorities sought, more than other European powers, to bind their subjects to the metropolis by indoctrination into the notion of the French mission civilisatrice. (Léopold Senghor, president of Senegal, a distinguished poet and member of the Académie Française, is the outstanding example of an African intellectual who embodies both this idea and the indigenous reaction to it.) Today, the French foreign ministry spends considerable amounts subsidising French-language teaching in Third World countries, in an attempt to maintain its reputation as a world language. Behind all this, perhaps, is France’s fear of losing its seat on the UN Security Council.
But as a world language, French is doomed. When it comes to Polynesia it never made much mark in the first place. The work of visiting anglophone writers there—Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Warren Stoddard—easily eclipses that of Pierre Loti, the only French literary contender. In the Pacific in the coming century, no one will want to learn French. For better or worse, they will be learning English or Chinese.
French realpolitik is ruthless; the French ruling elites are proud. Until French foreign policy changes there is a strong case for using the symbolic power of a boycott. Away, then, if you please, with French wine and French cars and French fruit; in with cars from Japan and wine from New Zealand, South Africa or Chile, countries that have condemned the nuclear weapons tests.
But an economic boycott is only a start. To hit the French government where it really hurts there is a better weapon: a boycott of the French language itself. In Britain French should cease to be taught as the first foreign language in schools. It should not be taught at all. There will be little resistance from school students. If they are keen on languages they can learn Latin. Or Arabic. Or Spanish. Or Portuguese. (The latter really are world languages). Or, in special cases, Chinese, the better to protest against nuclear testing in China. The ban on French could remain until such time as the government of France starts setting its remaining territorial possessions free—as the UK should also do—instead of blowing them up. Then it can set the French language free, too—in the same way that English, no longer the possession of a single nation, has been set free. And then, finally, French culture, with its unsurpassed heritage of art and literature and philosophy, will be able to abandon its pretensions to worldly hegemony and, like the Greek idea before it, take up its proper abode in the great republic of signs. ★