Seven months before taking over the EU’s rotating Council presidency, the French government is mulling plans to revive the declining use and visibility of la langue de Molière.
The French government is earmarking money to offer more French classes to EU civil servants. Officials are contemplating hosting French-language debates featuring the country’s crème de la crème.
And then there are the meetings.
During the country’s presidency, French diplomats said all key meetings of the Council of the EU will be conducted in French (with translations available). Notes and minutes will be French-first. Even preparatory meetings will be conducted in French.
If a letter arrives from the European Commission in English, it will go unanswered — Le français est nécessaire.
French, of course, is an official EU language (one of 24), and one of the three working languages of the Europen Commission. And France has used its EU presidency to promote the French language before. But French officials admit that in 2022, reviving French, which used to be the lingua franca of the EU, is a matter of cultural survival for all. They claim pushing French is a way to stall the creep of “Globish” — English suffused with non-native eccentricities — in favor of vibrant multilingualism. But to some eye-rolling diplomats, it’s just an illustration of French haughtiness and nostalgia for the time when French was la langue préférée of diplomats.
“Even if we admit that English is a working language and it is commonly practiced, the basis to express oneself in French remains fully in place in the EU institutions,” said a senior French diplomat. “We must enrich it, and make it live again so that the French language truly regains ground, and above that, the taste and pride of multilingualism.
“There will be more visibility with the French presidency, so we will intensify our work,” the diplomat added.
Back home, France’s Francophone push echoes a domestic debate over the country’s role in the world. Since 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron has been working to boost the French language worldwide — supporting Francophone projects in Africa, for instance. And with an election around the corner in 2022, Macron is also fending off a far-right presidential rival, Marine Le Pen, who pitches herself as a preserver of the French way of life.
France is far from the only EU country that has chosen to conduct Council meetings in a native language.
But the practice has become far less prominent in recent years, with many countries — particularly smaller ones — switching to English to save time and better ensure they’re widely understood.
As an example, Nuno Brito, the Portuguese ambassador whose country currently holds the EU presidency, speaks mostly in English in Council meetings, several Council officials said.
But as is often the case, the French like to do it the French way.
Already, French diplomats traditionally speak French at their regular meeting of EU ambassadors, a gathering known as the “Coreper,” regardless of whether their country holds the presidency.
And once France does assume the presidency, French diplomats said they will expand their use of French to all key meetings in the Council, including “all the presidency notes, the Coreper working groups and whatever allows us to organize all the work in the Council,” the French diplomat said, referring to the Council presidency notes, which are ultimately available in all of the EU’s official languages.
Even the “Antici” and “Mertens” groups, which are aimed at preparing ambassadors’ meetings, will be conducted in French.
“We want rules to be respected,” the diplomat said. “Thus, we will always ask the Commission to send us in French the letters it wishes to address to the French authorities, and if they fail to do so, we will wait for the French version before sending it.”
But the push goes beyond standing on principle and enforcing increasingly ignored protocols.
France is investing “exceptional budgetary and educational means” to step up the number of French classes for EU civil servants, the diplomat said, particularly through the “Alliance Française Bruxelles-Europe,” the main French language school in Brussels. Officials at the Alliance Française did not respond to a request to confirm an increase in French classes.
And within the EU itself, France will fully deploy an official overseeing the “French presence in the European Institutions.” Natacha Ficarelli, a former professor and expert on European affairs was recently hired to helm these efforts.
France will also offer French-language debates during its presidency, inviting speakers from Paris up to Brussels, the French diplomat said.
“This is where we, as French, are appealing,” he said.
The moment could similarly augur a Brussels resurgence for French-speaking ambassadors from any country. The GFA-B — which stands for “Group of Francophone Ambassadors in Brussels” — is a collection of 19 disparate EU ambassadors who share at least one trait: They speak French.
Led by Luminiţa Odobescu, Romania’s permanent representative in Brussels, the group held its first meeting last month. They discussed — en Français, bien sûr — the EU’s foreign policy priorities, according to a spokesperson from Odobescu’s office.
Hoping for a comeback
Given that French is one of the Commission’s three working languages, as well as one of the Council’s two spoken languages, it still holds a prominent position within the EU.
With 3,246 French nationals working at the European Commission, France is the third most represented country after Italy and Belgium. And according to the Commission, almost 80 percent of Commission officials as of 2020 spoke French as a first, second or third language.
In 2021 alone, there have been 143,099 pages of laws, web content, letters and press releases translated into French as the EU grinds through its daily business.
But French has long been losing ground to English as the EU’s main working language, especially since the EU started expanding east and north. The surge of expansion in 2004 — which saw 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries join the EU — was a particular inflection point.
The use of Euro English and Globish has become so widespread that several institutions have made behind-the-scenes efforts to streamline costs or improve efficiency by either prioritizing an English-only format or adding English to meetings where French was once used exclusively.
French officials note that with Britain gone from the EU, there are only two, fairly small, EU members — Ireland and Malta — that use English as an official language. And they use it alongside Irish and Maltese. For everybody else, English is, at best, a second language.
For the French, pushing their native tongue in Brussels is about more than diplomacy — it also carries a domestic political component. Officials in Paris are selling their EU French-language efforts to a French audience as well.
In an April op-ed published in Le Figaro, two French ministers — EU Affairs Minister Clément Beaune and Secretary of State Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, who oversees tourism and “Francophonie” — said France’s EU presidency created “an opportunity to hold high this vital fight for multilingualism.”
They admitted that the use of the French language in the EU “had diminished to the benefit of English, and more often to Globish, that ersatz of the English language which narrows the scope of one’s thoughts, and restricts one’s ability to express him or herself more than it makes it easier.”
In the piece, Beaune and Lemoyne announced the creation of a cross-partisan “Working Group on the French-speaking world and multilingualism,” a hodge-podge of 16 French-speaking former Commission officials, journalists, diplomats like Odobescu and MEPs like Sandro Gozi, an Italian member of the centrist Renew Europe group.
The group is due to issue a report in September with proposals on how to revive the French language during the French presidency. It has already held regular sessions, during which members have examined how EU texts are translated, how the EU communicates to outsiders, how the EU designs its “linguistic criteria in recruitment and how “language trainings” are conducted in EU countries, said Christian Lequesne, head of the working group and a senior European politics professor at the elite Sciences Po institute in Paris.
“One of the goals will be to encourage the teaching of two foreign languages, in addition to one’s native language,” Lequesne said. “The exercise we are leading now is done with the goal of preserving the future of the French language in Brussels. But not only, it is also the defense of multilingualism.”
Inevitably, France’s insistence on using French will grate on many in the EU. Eastern European diplomats are especially irked, as they often don’t speak French, but do speak English regularly.
“It could be divisive,” one of these diplomats said. “Some are afraid that they could miss something, because also their French is not that good.”
The diplomat added: “We are so used to English.”
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