ÉRIC ZEMMOUR (...)
“The end of French political power has brought the end of French,” Mr. Zemmour said. “Now even the French elite have given up. They don’t care anymore. They all speak English. And the working class, I’m not talking just about immigrants, they don’t care about preserving the integrity of the language either.”
Mr. Zemmour is a notorious rabble-rouser. In his view France, because of immigration and other outside influences, has lost touch with its heroic ancient Roman roots, its national “gloire,” its historic culture, at the heart of which is the French language. Plenty of people think he’s an extremist, but he’s not alone. The other day Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, sounded a bit like Mr. Zemmour, complaining about the “snobisme” of French diplomats who “are happy to speak English,” rather than French, which is “under siege.”
“Defending our language, defending the values it represents — that is a battle for cultural diversity in the world,” Mr. Sarkozy argued. The occasion for his speech was the 40th anniversary of the International Organization of the Francophonie, which celebrates French around the world. Mr. Sarkozy said the problem is not English itself but “ready-to-wear culture, uniformity, monolingualism,” by which of course he meant English. The larger argument about a decline of traditional values has struck a chord with conservative French voters perennially worried about the loss of French mojo.
The issue is somewhat akin to Americans complaining about the rise of Spanish in classrooms and elsewhere, but more acute here because of France’s special, proprietary, albeit no longer entirely realistic relationship to French. French is now spoken mostly by people who aren’t French. More than 50 percent of them are African. French speakers are more likely to be Haitians and Canadians, Algerians and Senegalese, immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean who have settled in France, bringing their native cultures with them.
Which raises the question: So what does French culture signify these days when there are some 200 million French speakers in the world but only 65 million are actually French? Culture in general — and not just French culture — has become increasingly unfixed, unstable, fragmentary and elective. Globalization has hastened the desire of more people, both groups and individuals, to differentiate themselves from one another to claim a distinct place in the world, and language has long been an obvious means to do so. In Canada the Quebecers tried outlawing signs and other public expressions in anything but French. Basque separatists have been murdering Spaniards in the name of political, linguistic and cultural independence, just as Franco imprisoned anyone who spoke Basque or Catalan. In Belgium the split between French and Dutch speakers has divided the country for ages.
And in France some years ago Jacques Toubon, a former culture minister, proposed curbing the use of English words like “weekend,” although nobody paid much attention. The fact is, French isn’t declining. It’s thriving as never before if you ask Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, who is the secretary general of the francophone organization. Mr. Diouf’s organization has evolved since 1970 from a postcolonial conglomerate of mostly African states preserving the linguistic vestiges of French imperialism into a global entity whose shibboleth is cultural diversity. With dozens of member states and affiliates, the group reflects a polyglot reality in which French is today concentrated outside France, and to a large extent, flourishes despite it.
“The truth,” Mr. Diouf said the other morning, “is that the future of the French language is now in Africa.” There and elsewhere, from Belgium to Benin, Lebanon to St. Lucia, the Seychelles to Switzerland, Togo to Tunisia, French is just one among several languages, sometimes, as in Cameroon, one among hundreds of them. This means that for writers from these places French is a choice, not necessarily signifying fealty, political, cultural or otherwise, to France. Or as Mr. Diouf put it: “The more we have financial, military and economic globalization, the more we find common cultural references and common values, which include diversity. And diversity, not uniformity, is the real result of globalization.”
Didier Billion is a political scientist with an interest in francophone culture. He agreed. “A multipolar world has emerged,” he said when we met in his office recently. “It’s the major trend of our time, which for the first time is allowing every person on the planet to become, in a cultural sense, an actor on the world stage.
“I was in Iran two months ago. Young Iranians are very proud of their own culture, which is rich and profound. But at the same time they want a window onto the world through the Internet, to have some identity outside Iran, and the important point is that for them there is no contradiction between these two positions. I am very proud of being French, but 40 years ago the French language was a way to maintain influence in the former colonies, and now French people are going to have to learn to think about francophone culture differently, because having a common language doesn’t assure you a common political or cultural point of view.”
This may sound perfectly obvious to Americans, but it’s not necessarily so to France’s growing tea party contingent. The populist National Front party won some 20 percent of the vote in the south last month (less nationwide), despite Mr. Sarkozy’s monthslong campaign to seduce right-wing voters by stressing the preservation of French national identity. Part of that campaign has been affirming a policy of cultural exceptionalism.
A phrase born years ago, “l’exception culturelle,” refers to the legal exclusion of French cultural products, like movies, from international free trade agreements, so they won’t be treated as equivalent to Coca-Cola or the Gap. But if you ask French people, the term also implies something more philosophical. In a country where pop radio stations broadcast a percentage of songs in French, and a socialist mayor in the northern, largely Muslim town of Roubaix lately won kudos for protesting that outlets of the fast-food chain Quick turned halal, cultural exceptionalism reflects fears of the multicultural sort that Mr. Zemmour’s book touches on.
It happens that Mr. Zemmour traces his own roots to Sephardic Jews from Spain who became French citizens while living in Algeria in the 19th century, then moved to France before the Algerian war. He belongs to the melting pot, in other words, which for centuries, he said, absorbed immigrants into its republican culture.
“In America or Britain it is O.K. that people live in separate communities, black with black, white with white,” he said, reflecting a certain antique perspective. “But this is not French. France used to be about assimilation. But since the 1970s the French intelligentsia has called this neocolonialism. In fact it is globalization, and globalization in this respect really means Americanization.”
But of course colorblind French Jacobin republicanism has always been a fiction if you were black or Muslim, and what’s really happened lately, it seems, is that different racial and ethnic groups have begun to argue more loudly for their rights and assert their culture. The election of Barack Obama hastened the process, by pointing out how few blacks and Arabs here have gained political authority.
The French language is a small but emblematic indicator of this change. So to a contemporary writer like the Soviet-born Andreï Makine, who found political asylum here in 1987, French promises assimilation and a link to the great literary tradition of Zola and Proust. He recounted the story of how, 20-odd years ago, his first manuscripts, which he wrote in French, were rejected by French publishers because it was presumed that he couldn’t write French well enough as a foreigner.
Then he invented the name of a translator, resubmitted the same works as if they were translations from Russian, and they won awards. He added that when his novel “Dreams of My Russian Summers” became a runaway best seller and received the Prix Goncourt, publishing houses in Germany and Serbia wanted to translate the book from its “original” Russian manuscript, so Mr. Makine spent two “sleepless weeks,” he said, belatedly producing one.
“Why do I write in French?” he repeated the question I had posed. “It is the possibility to belong to a culture that is not mine, not my mother tongue.”
Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born novelist here, put it another way: “The world has changed.” She moved to Paris during the 1970s. “The French literary establishment, which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class,” she said, while “laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France. But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering.