French Language: A Way Forward to Global Peace and Security


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

L’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) et les Balises de la Paix en Afrique: Les Apports du Français à l’Université et d’autres Recherches Connexes Participantes (The Way Forward to Peace in Africa: Contributions of French and other University Related Research Activities), was the theme of the three-day international conference organised by the Department of European Languages and Integration Studies of the University of Lagos. The conference was held from Sunday, 16th to Wednesday, 19th July, 2017 at the Afe Babalola Conference Hall of the university.

The organisation of the conference is quite important from three main perspectives. First, it is much concerned by the future of the French language in international relations, and particularly in Africa. Is the influence of French language on the wane or on the increase? Second, it focused on the dilemma of international insecurity and what had been theorised by various French philosophers and what had been said in French literature in the making of peace.

Put differently, to what extent has French contributed to the maintenance of international peace and security? Third, it looked at the extent of teaching and learning of French in Nigeria. Is French now a second lingua franca? Can we talk about a Francophone community in Nigeria? In fact, to what extent has French-speaking enhanced Nigeria’s relationship with her immediate neighbours? And perhaps, most importantly, to what extent has regional integration been helped by the factor of the French language?

The OIF was specifically established to promote the use of the French language in international relations. It is one important instrument for the projection of French influence bilaterally, plurilaterally and multilaterally. This explains why, initially the French differentiated between the French Community and all others. For instance, there was the Ministry of Cooperation specifically set up to deal with France’s relations with the Francophone African countries while the Quai d’Orsay (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) deals with all other member states of the international community.

Without a scintilla of doubt, the elevation of the French language, either by way of teaching and learning, or by its adoption as a second lingua franca, has the potential to considerably enhance the international status of the language. For instance, the number of speakers of French cannot but increase with Nigeria’s big population.

As noted by France Diplomatie, ‘French is spoken by 274 million people throughout the world. It is the fifth most widely spoken language after Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and according to estimations, Arab and Hindi. French is the fourth most common language (used) on the internet, the second most used language for international news in the media, the third most used language in business, the second leading working language of most international organisations and the second most learned language in the world with 125 million students and half a million of French teachers abroad’ (

Additionally, Francophone countries and Francophiles ‘accounted for 16% of the world’s GDP in 2012 with an average growth of 7%, and accounted for nearly 14% of the world’s mining and energy resources, despite the fact that French speakers only account for 4% of the world’s population.’ Currently, the Francophonie is considered the sixth largest geopolitical area in terms of population and is expected to have about 770 million speakers of French by the year 2050 to become the fourth largest geopolitical area in the world.
In these geo-demographic calculations, Nigeria does not appear to have been factored into the expected population by 2050, because of the current ambivalent official attitudinal disposition to the language. However, it is the expectation of many observers that the future shall determine the fate of French in Nigeria positively, particularly in light of the fact that Nigeria’s immediate neighbours are all French-speaking and that Nigeria has little or no means to make any change to the situation. The neighbours are unavoidable for reasons of geographical proximity and political propinquity. There will have to be all manners of relationship.

As rightly pointed out in her letter with the reference number: CAB/DC/ITF/mc/20161124-G20 of 28 November, 2016 to Professor Victor Ariole, current Head of Department of the Department of European Languages and Integration Studies, Her Excellency, Michaelle Jean, Secretary-General of the OIF and former Governor General of Canada of the Paris-based office of the OIF, said: ‘nous nous réjouissons de l’intérêt de votre Université pour la langue française et pour la Francophonie. La promotion du français et de la coopération francophone dans votre pays, le Nigéria, est en effet essentielle pour le développement des relations économiques et politiques entre les pays d’Afrique de l’Ouest.’

Put differently, ‘we are happy with the interest of your University in the French language and Francophony. The promotion of French and Francophone cooperation in your country, Nigeria, is, in fact, essential for the development of economic and political relations among the West African States.’ Mrs. Ojini Olaghere, the Executive Director of Operations and IT at the Access Bank Plc, also supported the OIF Secretary General in her paper at the conference by noting that in an age, where communication has no borders, language not only ‘stands as a tool for creating opportunities and building relationships that foster socio-economic growth and development, but also one that ‘affects a number of economic outcomes such as trade, economic growth and the provision of public good.’

True enough, the OIF Secretary General appeared to have said it all and could not have been more correct. For three complementary reasons, the understanding of French, especially by public servants in Nigeria, is a desideratum, because of relationships with the immediate neighbours and because of ECOWAS region, where Nigeria is a regional influential, and also because French is a language of imperium and self-reliance.

Right from the 13th Century, French has always been a language of imperium, that is, of authority and self-reliance. It is a language of authority, because it is a language of precision. It is a language of precision because of its richness in vocabulary. The richness in its vocabulary is traceable to the diversity of its origins. French is a language of romance and also that of the modern diplomatist. It is an official language of diplomacy, and more importantly it was the first diplomatic language of the United Nations after Latin in the 17th Century. English language has always been the first international language of business. Its diplomatic character was given following the negotiations ending World War I in Versailles in 1919.

What is important to note at this juncture is that the international conference came on the heels of the French Language and Francophony Week and the celebration of the French National Day, last July 14. The conference is consistent with the priority of French diplomacy, which is to sustain and spread the learning and teaching of French, especially in the light of the fact that many people want to learn French but the teachers of French are not many.

In spite of the foregoing, the influence of the use of French as a language of diplomacy, as at today, is waning, especially because of the ascendancy of the English language following World War I. The decline in influence is also traceable to the foreign policy and strategic miscalculation of the French Government, especially in terms of Franco-African relations and waning support for the learning and teaching of French in Africa.

If French, as a language of communication, is yet to have a great impact in Nigeria like the English language, it is largely because of the attitudinal disposition of the Government of France towards Nigerians, particularly the alumni of French educational institutions. Additionally, the allegations of passengers patronising the Air France are not helpful. They raise issues of discrimination. Even though the allegations are difficult to believe, the point to note is that some other people hold the belief.

In all, no matter the extent of decline of use of French in Nigeria or in international life and relations, there is no way it will not continue to be relevant in international relations, being an official language of the United Nations, and particularly in terms of Nigeria’s relations with her immediate neighbours. With this optimism, how will the Francophony affect the making of peace in the West African region in the foreseeable future?

French in Regional Peace and Security
In the foreseeable future, French, as a people, have the potential to divide Africa more than ever before mainly because of Morocco, which is seeking full membership of the ECOWAS. The full membership of the ECOWAS reportedly has the support of the Francophones. As at today, both at the continental and regional level, the Francophones are in control of the levers of ECOWAS and the African Union authority. It is the opportunity of this Francophone factor that Morocco is trying to capitalise on. A pointer to this observation was the representation of Nigeria at a low level at the last ECOWAS Summit held in Liberia

Second, the possible use of Francophone West Africa to push the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) agenda in the ECOWAS region may not be ruled out outright, as Nigeria and The Gambia are the only countries left in the region yet to sign the EPA. The European Union is actually targeting the Nigerian market but Nigeria has not been forthcoming, hence the need for the European Union to take advantage of Morocco’s in ECOWAS membership.

The disturbing aspect of the interest is that Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union, because the OAU not only recognised the sovereignty of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) but also admitted it to membership of the organisation. Today, Morocco has returned to the African Union even though the dispute Morocco had with the SADR is still far from settled. Is the SADR no longer an issue in the foreign policy calculations of Morocco?

Third, and more importantly, the acquisition of proficiency in the French language in Nigeria, which has the potential to also prompt a better understanding of the way of life in Francophone Africa, and therefore, an appreciation of better understanding as a basis for maintenance of regional peace and security, cannot but be made difficult. The generality of the diplomatic elite in Nigeria is not favourably disposed to the admission of Morocco’s membership.

Besides, French as a possible lingua franca in Nigeria cannot but also suffer major setbacks. For now, French as a lingua franca in Nigeria has the potential to generate national controversy, not necessarily because French has any problem of its own, but mainly because of its politics and the perception of how the Embassy of France is perceived in Nigeria.

Also put differently, the current attitudinal disposition of the French government towards raising the profile of the French language in international relations does not suggest any seriousness of purpose. For instance, in terms of policy attitude at the bilateral and plurilateral levels, the Matignon wants to promote cooperation projects in which at least two foreign languages will be taught, teachers are trained, and there is bilingual education in the educational systems of the partnering countries.

At the multilateral level, the policy attitude is to make Francophonie a political community. This was why France gave active support to the establishment of the International Agency of La Francophonie in 1970, which now has 84 member states and observers.
However, as good as these foreign policy foci may be, they cannot but be a child’s play in the absence of sustainable support. Support should not be seen in terms of mere logistics, but also on a wider scale of French policy attitude towards foreigners, and particularly the Francophiles, and former French alumni in Nigeria. The attitude of the Embassy of France in Nigeria is nothing to write home about on this matter, and therefore, has to be reviewed along the lines of stronger French ties with Africa, a promised by the newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron. It is by so doing that peace and security can be fostered through the Francophone factor.

When considering the need to go beyond French as an imperium, French, in all its ramifications, cannot but continue to be seriously challenged by globalisation, especially in terms of possible extinction of the French cultural identity in international relations. As noted by Philip H. Gordon of the Brookings Institution and Sophie Meunier of the Princeton University, globalisation poses a special challenge for three main reasons. As they put it: first is France’s statist, dirigiste political and economic tradition, because globalisation implies that the market, and not the state, determines economic relationships. It is particularly difficult to accept for a society that is used to looking to the state to provide jobs, redistribute incomes, protect against unwanted imports, and promote prestigious industrial sectors and perceived national interests.

France’s ‘influence politics’ is quite notable in inter-state relations. The French always want to have global influence in line with their universal values. While the United Kingdom wants to maintain its global influence by associating more with the United States, France sees the United States as the major impediment to its global diplomatic influence. Again, in the words of Gordon and Meunier, ‘to the extent that globalisation means ceding world leadership to the United States – or even limiting France’s traditional diplomatic role by ceding more power to collective organisations like the European Union (EU) or the United Nations (UN) – it is particularly difficult for France to accept.

Additionally, the French equates globalisation essentially with Americanisation and fears the unlimited impact of new technologies, the growing impact of free trade ideology, the spread of the internet, the dominant role of the United States, and therefore of the English in global business, etc, ‘all about to combine to make the French to worry about their cultural, linguistic, and culinary traditions – in short, their national identity – in a globalising world.’

What is particularly noteworthy about the foregoing is not the economic components of globalisation, but the threats to the cultural identity of the French in international relations. Put differently, ‘uncontrolled globalisation, many French worry, will oblige France to abandon some of the most distinctive, and best loved, aspects of its entertainment, art, culinary traditions, and language – in short those things that most make France identifiable as France.’

Faced with the challenges of globalisation, has France any unilateral or exclusive control over the conduct and management of globalisation as an issue in international relations? We doubt much. The best any Government of France can do is to seek special protection of French as a language of communication and language of diplomacy by giving, at whatever costs, more meaningful support to the learning and teaching of French the world over.

In this regard, the French may wish to borrow from the Chinese experience. The Chinese government has a new policy of establishing Chinese language centres for people wishing to learn Chinese language at no costs to the learner. It is done pro bono. This shows that the Chinese are supporting their long term objective of global influence with cash-backing.

Perhaps, more importantly, the French government should ask itself this question: how many non-Francophone students, especially Nigerians, are currently interested in studying in France? What does ‘seeing Paris and die’ mean as at today for the people of Africa?

And most importantly, there is no disputing the fact that the need to respond to the challenges of globalisation, climate change, as well as ageing French population cannot but require the mobilisation of further research and innovative efforts. This also requires special allocation of funds. Without this, the protection of influence of the French in global affairs can only remain a wishful thinking. It is from this perspective that the contributions of leading lecturers of French, who attended the international conference, should be appreciated.

Professor Ade Ojo, former Director of the Nigeria-French Village, who chaired the opening ceremony of the conference, Professor M. A. Johnson, Professor Ade Kukoyi Professor Union Edebiri, Professor J.O. Abioye, and Professor S.J. Timothy-Asobele were all there. Professor Victor Ariole has done well in leading the advancement of French in Nigeria during his tenure as Head of Department of European Language and Integration Studies.

The attitude of the Embassy of France in Nigeria is nothing to write home about on this matter, and therefore, has to be reviewed along the lines of stronger French ties with Africa, a promised by the newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron. It is by so doing that peace and security can be fostered through the Francophone factor