French Prefer Linguistic Purity To International Relevance

France is a nation that once dominated the world. In the 14th Century or so, the King of France would have likely been considered the “most powerful man in the world”, much as an American President would be considered today. Over time, the French have become irrelevant, as their empire has shrunk and their power– including a goal to dominate Europe through the EU– has dissipated as well.

How have the French people taken this change? With a whole host of sour grapes, and rarely has this been more apparent than in their language. Preferring not to use terms like “e-mail” due to its English root, the French government tried in vain to promote the term “courier electronique”. In an effort to re-assert their prominence in the news world, they began their own international news network to compete with CNN, known as France 24. At the time, they offered it in multiple languages, as English has become the lingua franca of international business. Now, though, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to shut down the English version of the channel:

“GOBSMACKED!” That is how one journalist at France 24, a television news channel, described the newsroom’s reaction to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that the channel should in future broadcast only in French. That such a colloquialism—in English—reverberates so readily around a French television studio shows how bilingual the channel has become in a land known for linguistic chauvinism.

France 24, jointly owned by the public broadcaster and TF1, a private station, was set up just over a year ago as a result of French exasperation at American dominance of the airwaves. The French were vexed, particularly during the invasion of Iraq, by the cheerleading of American networks, and wanted a CNN à la française. From the start, it was obvious that to offer a “French perspective” to others, it would have to broadcast in languages other than French, just as al-Jazeera knew it could not broadcast only in Arabic. France 24 began with channels in French and English; an Arabic station followed.

So why does Mr Sarkozy want to close down its non-French channels? One reason is budgetary: he says he is “not disposed to finance a channel that does not speak French”. The other is diplomatic. “In order to present a French vision,” he says, “I would really prefer it to be presented in the French language.” The French have long considered their language to be more than a tool of communication: it is an embodiment of culture, identity and independence. To speak to the world in another language seems like a gesture of submission.

Submission? Perhaps. But to speak to the world in French is largely a gesture of futility.

To be fair, I’m not saying that broadcasting only in French is a bad thing. French is still one of the world’s great languages. According to wikipedia, somewhere in the range of 500 million people worldwide have “significant knowledge” of the language. That puts it roughly near Spanish, slightly ahead of Arabic, and only behind Chinese (Mandarin) and English worldwide.

But if France wants to expand its culture, it needs to reach out to areas where its culture currently does not penetrate. America and the rest of the English-speaking world would be a great market. Trying to enter the US market will be difficult enough for a French network, but trying to do so in the French language will be impossible.

Sarkozy has a choice: either continue with the attempt to expand French culture, knowing that you will have to do so in other languages, or give up on the plan to expand the culture, and use France 24 as a competitor to CNN and Al-Jazeera in markets with already heavy French influence. If there will be any chance to reverse the trajectory of French culture over the last century, it might be best to attempt the former.