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Features

Why I won’t let my children learn French

It’s ‘the language of human rights’, says François Hollande. Not in Africa it isn’t

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

My children won’t learn French. If their school tries to force the issue, I’ll fight tooth and nail. There’ll be the mother of all Agincourts before I let it happen.

It’s not that I have any problem with the language, even though it has too many vowels and you have to say 99 as ‘four-twenty-ten-nine’, making it impossible (I imagine) to sing that song about red balloons.

It’s just that I want my children to be successful, and learning French makes no business sense. There’s a moral issue too, but first the business: no English person moves to France to hatch a business plan these days. They might go there for the lifestyle, or the wine, or to live out their years. But nobody goes there to succeed. My nephew, who recently left school in Brittany, had modest ambitions to be a shop assistant, but found he needed a three-year accreditation in retail. He signed up to be a tour guide, but was required to take a two-year course in pointing at battlements. You cannot lead even the most unambitious life in France without sitting an exam for it. There’s not much incentive to do anything for yourself, either: even if you remain insufficiently prosperous to stay clear of the 75 per cent tax rate, every self-starter who sells their business after ten years owes the state 60 per cent capital gains tax on any profit. Quebec has launched a programme to lure 50,000 French entrepreneurs to its shores, which is a bit like deciding to save 50,000 black rhinos. Too late, I reckon.

None of this makes France unworthy of visiting, of course. France is lovely, and best enjoyed if you can hire a caravan and sit in cafés and buy baguettes. But for these I recommend a phrasebook, rather than six years of verb conjugation.

Of course, it’s not all about France. People point out to me that much of the world — 15 per cent of its land area, no less — is Francophone. Yes, I say, and just look at the state of most of it. Look at Ivory Coast and Chad and Mali and the two Congos and — right now — the Central African Republic. Much of Africa is looking up these days, but these particular countries are irretrievably buggered. And the reason they’re buggered is intimately connected to the fact that they speak French.

Organisation internationale de la Francophonie is an association of countries that ‘speak French, or that sign up to French values’. They speak French because 100 years ago they had no choice, and they sign up to French values because there’s business to be done by doing so. The most recent addition is Qatar, a country where only 1 per cent of the population speaks any French, following the Gulf state’s agreement to put €300 million into French enterprise. At the Francophone summit in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, last year, President Hollande said, ‘Speaking French means speaking the language of human rights. The Rights of Man were written in French.’ Beyond the chance of filling the coffers, it is a belief central to La Francophonie that the language and the culture are indissoluble: if you speak French, you will think French. Your sympathies will bend perforce towards France.

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Today if you scratch a poor Francophone country you’ll find France. Unlike Britain, France never really left Africa. An African advisory unit, the Cellule Africaine, has remained in the Élysée Palace since France’s African empire was officially dissolved, capable of shoring up or knocking over rulers as required. Strong bonds of cooperation with Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, the Bongo regime in Gabon and Mobutu in the former Belgian Congo have kept those countries reliant on French aid and assistance. France has intervened militarily in Africa 30 times since granting its colonies independence; many more times it has backed rebel groups or used intrigue and leverage to install or remove regimes. French special forces helped bring down the Gbagbo regime in Ivory Coast in 2010. Last year the French were in Mali; now they’re in the Central African Republic, where 38 years ago France helped install the ‘African Napoleon’, Bokassa I, removing him three years later when his penchant for cutting people’s ears off and killing schoolchildren became an embarrassment. France maintains a permanent and active presence of 5,000 troops across the most fractured, underdeveloped and politically fragile part of the continent.

Over there, you get a lot of bang for 5,000 men. Africa, according to former President Giscard d’Estaing, remains ‘the sole continent where France could still, with 500 men, change the course of history’. And so it has. But then, Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil. I’ve no doubt that France will save some lives in CAR. But in 30 full-scale military adventures France has not yet installed one worthwhile government nor made the slightest improvement to the average African’s quality of life.

In return for its muscle, France’s nuclear power stations draw half of their uranium from Niger, and France exports oil from Gabon, where it has just given its blessing to a dynastic succession of power. After the US, France is the second largest investor in Equatorial Guinea, a Francophonie member despite its state language being Spanish. It’s a nation consistently ranked among the ‘worst of the worst’ in an annual survey of political and civil rights abuses carried out by the monitor group Freedom House. Every country does business with horrible regimes, of course. What’s amusing is that the President, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, received an ‘Order of Francophonie and Dialogue of Cultures Award’ from La Francophonie a year after police in Paris raided his son’s house, confiscating 11 of his luxury cars. They also found plans to build a yacht costing the same as Equatorial Guinea’s entire health and education budget.

Of course it’s wrong to disdain the French language — and yes, it is a beautiful language — just because so many people use it to say things like ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘I wish we could have an election’ and ‘I’m taking my money to Belgium’. Plenty of dark plans have been hatched in English, after all: the idea of seizing control of Equatorial Guinea by Mark Thatcher’s friends sticks in the mind. My problem with French is that it’s still at war with us.

In editorials that defend Hollande’s faltering economic model, Libération continually attacks the alternative: clunking, brutal Anglo-Saxon laissez-faire. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is still a shorthand in French government for anything antithetical to accepted French practice. The historian Martin Meredith attributes this to ‘Fashoda Syndrome’, Kitchener’s rebuff to French colonial expansion that so infuriated Charles de Gaulle that he set up the Cellule Africaine.

In 1990 the CA was headed by Jean–Christophe Mitterrand, son of President François. Meredith recounts how, when a Tutsi rebel army equipped by Uganda approached Rwanda in October 1990, ‘it fitted directly into the French notion of an Anglo-Saxon plot… With little hesitation, President Mitterrand, a personal friend of [the Hutu president] Habyarimana, authorised the despatch of French troops to Rwanda.’

Over the next year, French forces oversaw the expansion of the Hutu armed forces from 9,000 to 28,000 men and set up arms deals that helped the regime buy $100 million worth of arms from Egypt and South Africa, despite mounting evidence that they were preparing for genocide. Central to this was the French mercenary Paul Barril, who, even once the genocide had begun in earnest, signed a contract of assistance with the interim Rwandan government  that was carrying out the butchery. French involvement in Rwanda is recounted in the memoirs of UN commander Roméo Dallaire, who helplessly watched French aircraft delivering arms to the genocidaires. French soldiers, believing they had been sent to prevent an invasion by the Tutsi rebel army, were horrified to find themselves protecting mass-murderers and required by their government to set up a safety zone which gave the fleeing genocidaires safe passage into Zaire.

Linda Melvern, whose account of the genocide, Conspiracy To Murder, is one of the most comprehensive, drily concludes, ‘The French policy seemed to be based on the fact that Rwanda was at a crossroads between Anglophone and Francophone Africa.’

Of course, I can’t do anything about all this beastliness and intrigue far away. None of us can. These days we’re even told that aid is futile. But for the sake of doing something futile yet decisive, I will insist that my children don’t learn French. Call it solidarity with Rwanda, where the new government has embarked on a massive campaign to make English the language of government and commerce. They even joined the Commonwealth in 2009. I’m sad, of course, that my children will miss a field trip to Saint-Malo and the ability to watch Yves Montand films without subtitles. It’s just that, in the great marketplace of language, French looks such an unattractive investment. German is going places. Mandarin will be indispensable. Spanish has few irregular verbs and is spoken in a multitude of fascinating countries with positive economic outlooks.

Despite all this I do maintain a liking for French people, French cynicism and French satire. It was an article in Charlie Hebdo (France’s version of Private Eye) in 2009 that led to charges against Barril being filed at the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris. Pending the outcome of the investigation, Barril continues to work as advisor to the government of Qatar, the latest member of an organisation which promotes the French language along with (according to Mr Hollande) ‘democracy, human rights, pluralism, respect for freedom of expression, and the assertion that everyone should be able to choose their leaders’.

Actually, forget what I said about the French and irony.

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