The French: Unlikely bedfellows unite to preserve `La Difference'

Boutros Boutros-Ghali will make his comeback this week, as secretary- general of Francophonie, the French version of the Commonwealth. It was founded in 1986 to defend French language and culture, but 11 years later you no longer have to speak French to g
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It is somewhat rare to hear the language of Moliere spoken on the streets of Lagos. The same is true of Cairo, Sofia, Bucharest and, increasingly, Hanoi, But they are all capitals of countries which belong to, or wish to belong to, "la Francophonie", a loose grouping of 49 countries, provinces and territories devoted to the promotion and protection of French language and culture.

The leaders of members of Francophonie, and would-be members, will meet in Hanoi this week for the organisation's seventh summit. They will elect a secretary-general (almost certainly Mr Boutros-Ghali) and, for the first time, give the organisation a formal headquarters and secretariat in Paris.

Officially, Francophonie is being extended and "re-positioned" to resist the global domination of the English language and Anglo-Saxon (that is, American) culture. Unofficially, it seems in danger of becoming a gathering ground for malcontents and misfits.

What can the military regime in Nigeria, suspended from the Commonwealth for human-rights violations, bring to the rearguard action against Anglo- cultural imperialism? Not much. Officially, Lagos has been invited to take part because it has promised to promote the teaching of French.

"In truth, Nigeria is there because, it is a pleasingly rude gesture to Britain", said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, professor of international relations at the prestigious foreign think tank, the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (IFRI).

But is not France the country which invented human rights? Is it not self-defeating that an organisation created to defend France's cultural contribution to the world should chase the favours of states such as Nigeria? "Maybe," said Mr Moreau-Defarges. "But France is also the country of political intrigue, the country of Richelieu."

Romania, already a member, speaks a language related to French. But what of Bulgaria, Poland and Albania, expected to join next year? Officially, these countries are signing up because they support France's quest to preserve cultural diversity in the face of the English-language domination of everything from movies to the Internet.

This is a legitimate, even laudable, goal. But French officials recognise privately that the citizens of these countries are far more interested in learning English than French. Their governments are joining Francophonie because (with the exception of Poland) they are on the fringes of European integration and hope belonging to the French cultural club will buy them French support in the negotiations in Brussels. This has, however, proved of limited value so far.

The summit in Hanoi, from Friday to Sunday, will discuss two declarations on the promotion of economic ties. It will also consider ways of challenging the English language domination of the information revolution. One suggestion will be the creation of a "virtual university" in the French language, by using the existing Internet or an especially dedicated network of computers.

But the single most important piece of business will be the selection of Francophonie's first full-time leader. Mr Boutros- Ghali, the Egyptian statesman deposed as United Nations secretary-general last year, has the support of France, Belgium and Quebec, the three largest players. He is a high-profile name. Just as usefully, his election will get up the nose of the United States, which fought to have him removed from the UN.

In an interview with the French magazine Le Point, Mr Boutros-Ghali said Francophonie had "no future" if it stuck to its original conception: the defence of French as a global language;"It must turn to defending cultural diversity and multi-lingualism, which constitute the true quality of the human heritage."

Mr Moreau-Defarges says this point is accepted by Paris, even if it is, in a sense, an admission of defeat: "Any hope that you could build an international organisation around French alone cannot be sustained in the modern world."