Chirac spreads the word about French

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The Independent Online
Turning his back on social unrest in France, President Jacques Chirac spent the weekend in the West African state of Benin, where he fired the latest salvo in France's continuing battle to prevent the international eclipse of the French language by English.

Warmly received by his linguistically captive audience of delegates from Francophone countries - or "countries which have the French language in common", as they now style themselves - Mr Chirac issued what was grandly called the "Cotonou appeal", named after the main city, "to fight against the risk of linguistic, and so cultural, uniformity in the world" (otherwise known as English). In particular, he called for a campaign for "linguistic diversification" of the Internet, where, he said, 90 per cent of communications are in English.

Mr Chirac, who was giving the keynote address at the Francophone summit - the biennial a gathering of 47 countries - said he was not among those who denigrated English, but he wanted to draw attention to "the danger that vernacular languages could be eradicated". "To defend the spread of the Francophone world," he said, "is to defend openness, and therefore tolerance."

Warming to his subject, he described French as the "bearer of humanism ... because the concepts of liberte and egalite are expressed in French", and he called on other countries - "Spanish- and Arabic-speakers, those who express themselves in Japanese or in Hindi" - for support, because they were also "victims of the same threat".

Neither Spanish nor Arabic, however, seem to be quite the victims that Mr Chirac would have them believe: both come well above French in terms of the number of speakers worldwide, as does Portuguese. French, with 130 million speakers, takes ninth place globally, while speakers of English number almost 600 million.

Aside from celebrating the glories of the French language, Mr Chirac is expected to nudge the 47 Francophone countries into a more political direction, and structural changes are to be made that appear partly modelled on the British Commonwealth. The new post of Secretary-General is to be created, to represent the grouping internationally, and a conflict-prevention group is to be set up.

One of the group's first planned exercises in conflict-prevention, or at least conflict-mitigation, immediately ran into trouble, however, when Rwanda dissociated itself from a joint statement calling for a summit to discuss the situation in that region and issued a broadside against France, accusing it of wanting to restore the former regime in Rwanda.

Meanwhile, on the margins of the conference, Mr Chirac was holding bilateral meetings with some of the 20 heads of state or government present. One purpose of these meetings, according to unofficial reports, was to warn that France was planning a limited military disengagement from Africa, entailing the withdrawal of more than 1,000 troops and the closure of three bases, including the one at Abidjan, in Ivory Coast.

Such a move, coming two years after the "overseas franc" was unpegged from the French franc, would mean a further loosening of ties between France and its former African colonies - and would partly explain why France wants to encourage the Francophone grouping to take a more political role.