Does Francophonie matter for the Arab world?
Claude Salhani

Among the representatives of the 58 countries and 26 observer nations at the recent Francophonie summit in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, were Arab leaders, notably the presidents of Lebanon and Tunisia.

The International Organisation of la Francophonie includes fully or partially Francophone countries, a loose definition that gives it a wide reach encompassing many countries of the Arab region.

Do Arabs have a stake in the international French-speaking community? Does France play an important role in its former domains? Paris likes to think it does.

Whether the French and the Francophonie matter in the Arab world are debatable.

Lebanon, or at least a large segment of the Lebanese population, still turns to Paris for political support when in a crunch. Paris thought it could influence Syrian President Bashar Assad early in the conflict and avoid the bloodshed in the country, a former French protectorate.

It turned out that the French were preaching in the desert.

Still, the Francophonie could be a bridge between the Arab world and other parts of the globe, such as Europe and Africa. One of the assets of the Francophonie is that it’s reaching out to different cultures. This can only be a positive development amid globalisation trends that place all cultures in one single mould.

France has always been an important partner for the Arab world. It can still offer prospects in the future, providing a counter view of the world as presented by Washington.

The International Organisation of La Francophonie represents one of the biggest linguistic zones in the world. Its members share more than a language. They share the values and interests promoted by the French language. The French language and its “humanist values” represent cornerstones on which the International Organisation of La Francophonie is based.

Created in 1970, the International Organisation of La Francophonie sees its mission as formulating a deep sense of solidarity among its members and observers. Together they represent more than one-third of the United Nations’ members and account for a population of more than 900 million people, including 274 million French speakers.

The French language — and by direct association French culture, i.e., books, newspapers and magazines and movies for television as well as for the big screens, and now the internet with the capability of accessing the web in French — allows for the expansion of French culture. When one talks about French culture one must not forget French cuisine, French haute couture and French politics.

The two leading colonial languages continue to influence the Arab world. Language represents culture and a way of life.

The great divide between French and English is far wider than the narrow body of water that geographically separates the two former colonial powers. These days the battle for the hearts and minds — and tongues — takes a different approach.

While Britain has the commonwealth; the French have the Francophonie, where not the only French speakers are members.

Who would have ever guessed that Armenia, a former Soviet republic, not a French-speaking country by any means, would host a Francophonie summit?

Beyond promoting French language and culture, the Francophonie preserves France’s political and economic zone of influence. From luxury items to medical equipment and aerospace industry exports as well as the sale of its weaponry around the world, France has a lot at stake.

The French know, however, that in juicy deals knowledge of French is not a prerequisite. The merchants of French weapons systems, for instance, also speak fluent English.

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