Francophonie in Africa: is it just about the language? Dalila Berritane answers our questions
By Institut Montaigne
This week, Francophonie is celebrated around the world. Launched on Saturday 17 March by the French Ministry of Culture, the 23rd week of French language and Francophonie encourages the world’s millions of French-speakers to exchange and debate on the use of French. Extending far beyond its linguistic and cultural dimension, the latter generates major economic and geopolitical repercussions.
Dalila Berritane, influence & communication consultant in Africa and rapporteur for Institut Montaigne’s report Ready for Today’s Africa?, shares her analysis of what Francophonie represents in Franco-African relations.
Over half of the daily French-speakers today live in Africa. What role does the French language play in relations between France and Africa?
To quote an expression dear to Kateb Yacine, one of the greatest Algerian poet and playwright, "the French language is a spoils of war". Beyond the endured heritage, Africans have made French their own language. It belongs to all those who seize it, manipulate it, romanticize it, reinvent it.
In Africa, the French language is particularly lively, especially in cities where it intertwines with different national languages to form a pleasant mix. It is often strewn with old and rare expressions. It is necessary to accept this singularity and this interbreeding of language, as it is a symbol of appropriation and of a desire to become one with the French language and its specific identity.
This language first and foremost bridges the gap between Africa’s different French-speaking regions and countries. It is also a gateway to France, particularly used for business between the latter and the 22 African countries that share the French idiom. It is the language used in higher education, used by French-speaking intellectuals who increasingly question and jostle France’s position in Africa, thereby challenging us. These abundant exchanges are all made in French.
It can however quickly seem like a mirage or a trap if we are not careful enough. To understand French-speaking Africans, we must accept to look far beyond words.
What is your view on Emmanuel Macron's desire to make Francophonie "a tool of influence, at the service of economic integration"?
Francophonie has always been an instrument of influence for France, serving its ideas and its economy. Change will stem from the way this ambition is carried out: by respecting others in their diversity, in their multiple identities and languages, by dusting off and unravelling relations on both sides. Let us join forces to build a pool of values and ideas that, beyond our differences, bring us together from Kinshasa to Algiers to Abidjan, to Paris or Bamako. Still, we would have to accept to revisit our traditional thought processes and decentralize the French-speaking world. Let us reinvent this world together! In the words of the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ: "men can achieve a common goal without using the same path".
The French language is undoubtedly an advantage for French companies wishing to invest in Africa, but it is not sufficient to conquer markets. While OHADA law is similar to ours which, then again, represents a competitive advantage, our strength also lies within our services, their quality and the price Africans are willing to pay to access them. Today Africa, whilst developing a singular trajectory, is an open continent, receptive to other worldviews. It is without a doubt one of the most open continents in the world. We will win together if we also learn how to adopt more open-minded ideas and visions of the world, and particularly Africa, which is actually still barely known in France.
French market shares have been divided by 2.5 since the beginning of the 2000s in sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond the language, what tools does France have to rectify this trend?
Contrary to what one might imagine, I am convinced that one of our competitive advantages lies in our very "French" way of doing business, as it takes into account the environment in which it is implemented, and especially African collaborators. Although competition is particularly tough against emerging countries, this advantage needs to be considered on the long term. While nobody ignores the fact that for companies, the long term is a risk factor, it is also associated with a clear strategic vision, essential to the success of business in Africa.
France also has a significant financial arsenal. It is admittedly less important than that of Asian countries for example, but Africans appreciate its flexibility, vision and pragmatism. French companies can rely on a diplomatic network that is aware of economic issues and which tries, as much as possible, to defend French interests. Moreover, in France, a new generation of young people, including the diaspora, is interested in Africa. This movement must be amplified and encouraged. Africa should be a continent where exporting would be as natural an option as in any other European country or in Asia. Gaining market shares, beyond the product or service, its quality and price, is also a matter of belief and enthusiasm.