Random thoughts on returning from French Africa

If you’re a human being who speaks French, you’re more likely to be African than European. La Francophonie’s demographic center of gravity is now somewhere around Bamako, Mali.

If you’re a human being who is literate in French — say, at a high school graduate level — you’re probably European. But not for much longer. Demographic growth plus the slow-but-steady rise of literacy rates in most of Africa means that by the next decade, most literate Francophones will be African too.

Given time, this is going to have interesting effects on French literature, language and culture. African writers are going to be more interesting and important. African dominance will take much longer — Africa is still very poor, after all — but it’s not a completely daft idea; if Africa ever starts converging on European income levels, there’ll be a lot of money in making French language products for them. In the nearer term… oh, watch for African script and screen writers drifting north to Paris. Longer term, well, the Academie Francaise has always allowed non-French citizens to be members; by 2050, I’d expect these members to be approaching a majority.

If you’re a human being who speaks French, and is also a practicing Catholic, you’re almost certainly African — like, ten-to-one odds. Plenty of people have already pointed out that Catholicism, slowly retreating in Europe, is growing like crazy in Africa, so I won’t go into that here.

But: French is now one of the major languages of Islam. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the Muslim populations in Europe. But we never hear much about their mirror images: the Muslims who stayed behind, but who’ve become linguistically — and to some small degree, culturally — French. Northwest Africa in particular, Senegal and Mali and Mauretania and Niger, is a land of Francophone Muslims. And many of them have picked up more from France than just the language; Senegalese love croissants and fine pastries and read Tintin and Le Petit Prince to their kids.

Soon there will be tens of millions of Muslims who grew up reading Sartre and Dumas, the plays of Ionesco and the poetry of Baudelaire. (And who’ll be able to read Houllebecq in the original! Um, if they want to.) What long-term effects that might have… well, I really have no idea.

10 thoughts on “Random thoughts on returning from French Africa

  1. Heh. It’s of minor interest to me that this coincides with the week I’ve been publishing lots of _francophonie_ notes.

    What’s interesting are the places where French–or something recognizable connected to French–is supplanting native languages to become a first language, usually in very multilingual places like Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Gabon. With the population of these three countries alone continuing to grow, there may soon be as many first-language speakers of French in the developing world as in the developed world.

    Also, it’s worthwhile noting that _la francophonie_ came about as an initiative of African states, Tunisia’s Bourguiba and Senegal’s Senghor playing particularly important roles, as they tried to diversify their links and so avoid French hegemony. (Québec helped too, since after the Quiet Revolution Québec became quite interested in the wider Francophone world.) This initiative suggests to me that _la francophonie africaine_ will survive no matter how much English remains dominant; the Francophone networks remain intact, and will probably be maintained for some time to come.

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  3. Pour votre peine, je vous avoue que je parle le français, je suis Catholique, et je ne suis ni Africain ni Européen.

    Fallait bien que j’existe, non?

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  5. Of course that “francophonie” is not a gallic-centric issue may be relative news to English-speakers:)

    May I say, as a Frenchman, that is not really new stuff. However I am glad to read a non-biased account. Something quite rare in English-based media.

    You seem to be positive on their economic and financial prospects. Which is REAL news and a good one. For them and all of us whatever their language.

  6. Of course such exposure to French culture will have no influence on African Muslims. As the Mark Steyns of the world continually remind us Muslims share a hive mind and never ever change as the result of contact with other cultures. Not that the Steyns of the world are particularly fond of French culture in the first place.

  7. A fascinating look at the French language and culture in Africa. My daughter has just spent the past five months in Senegal and Togo, and I visited for a week in April. (I’m a French speaker as well) Although most of the men in these countries are Francophone, many of the women are much more comfortable with the native language. (in Senegal, usually Wolof) The Senegalese I spoke with consider French their colonial language and learn it so that they can get by, but are not passionate about it or the culture. The restaurants I ate in there were mainly French, but in their homes, they eat domodah, fufu and other native foods.

  8. Margaret, French gets taught in school, so the more school you have, the more French you’ll be exposed to. And Senegalese girls are likely to leave school years before Senegalese boys. So, less French.

    But French looks good to survive for many years in Senegal, because there isn’t another language for everyone to talk together yet. Senegal has six large ethnic groups and several smaller ones, all with different languages. Yes, most people speak Wolof, because it’s the language of the biggest group… but the Wolof are not a majority (they’re a bit under 40%), and it would be completely unacceptable to make Wolof the official language, or even to allow it to dominate formal discourse. That would imply that Wolof were the “real” Senegalese, and the other groups would never accept it. I’ve met non-Wolof Senegalese — Pula — who barely spoke their own language, were a little shaky in French, and were totally fluent in Wolof, using it all day long … but who bridled at the suggestion of giving Wolof a special position.

    So even though many more people speak Wolof than French, French remains the language of government, business, and high culture, and probably will be for a long time to come.

    Doug M.

  9. Yes, French is the unifying language in many of these countries, although my daughter’s host family and most of her Senegalese friends were outraged when Wade appointed his son to several Cabinet positions; the son is, for all intents and purposes French, and speaks not a word of Wolof! I noticed that the Senegalese French is much more informal-the tu form abounds, they say bonsoir at any time of the day, ca va to anyone on the street. My daughter says the same as you;men tend to be better educated, thus they have better French. She also could understand the French in Togo way better because it wasn’t mixed with wolof, which threw me off also.

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