BOBIGNY, France — On March 20, French President Emmanuel Macron stood before a crowd at the prestigious Académie Française in central Paris. With his trademark confidence and fastidious affect, he made his case for French as a global, 21st-century language unburdened by the oppression associated with colonialism.
“By making the language of the colonizers their own language, the previously colonized people have brought this experience of suffering that enriches our perspectives,” he said. “French has been liberated from France and has become a world language.”
But Macron’s statement — that previously colonized people’s contributions to the language could be reduced to a suffering that liberates French from France — does not square with reality. Despite that French develops outside of France, Francophone countries’ education systems are still under the purview of the Academy.
A staid state body whose members — known as les immortals — wear ornate black and white outfits while in session, the Academy has been fighting a rear-guard action against the corruption of official French since its founding in 1635. Currently, 33 of 36 seated members are white, 28 are white men. The Academy decides what words and phrases count as French, and what don’t, and those decisions hold for the entire Francophone world’s education systems.
Best known for unsuccessful attempts to outlaw Anglicisms — un email, le parking, le weekend and bruncher — the Academy stands above and apart from the living and evolving French spoken both in the majority of the Francophone world and right in the Parisian banlieues. In these densely populated suburbs, French is not one codified lingua franca but an expressive, quickly evolving mélange.
“The composition of the Academy today does not reflect the diversity of the French and Francophone population,” said Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist and activist who hosts a show on BET France. “It’s mostly old white men who decide on the language of tens of millions of French speakers.”
Drop by the post office near the Bobigny Pablo-Picasso Metro stop, about eight miles northeast of the Academy, and you’ll hear Vietnamese words mixed with ones in Arabic and Wolof, while Sinhalese and Cantonese phrases mingle with a little Bambara. The cashier speaks French French.
French slang, or argot, was born from this cultural confluence, coupled with the need for invention. Class plays a part, too. Many words and turns of phrases come from old, blue-collar French, as well as from Roma and verlan, a decades-old way of speech in which the first and last syllables are swapped. (For a short list of popular argot, see the list below.)
Indeed, verlan was created to mask certain words and more generally to reclaim the French language from the Academy. Verlan is simply l’envers, or the reverse — the term verlan is the sound of l’envers reversed.
“Reappropriating a language is a form of power. If you dominate a language, its customs, it is a form of power,” said Sébastien Radouan, a university professor who was born, raised and still lives in Bobigny.
But the most crucial influences on the language lie outside France. Africa, for one, is home to about half of the world’s French speakers, or more than all French speakers in Europe, according to French government figures. Many of the rest are in Quebec, the Caribbean and Vietnam.
Birth rates in Francophone Africa are the highest in the world, up to 7.57 births per woman in Niger, for example — in contrast to those in France, which have fallen to two births per woman. Right now, there are roughly 400 million people living in Francophone Africa, compared with about 67 million in France. If trends continue, by 2050, 80 percent of French speakers will be African.
Countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have all developed distinct vocabularies, phrases and ways of speaking la langue de Molière. In Ivory Coast’s economic capital, Abidjan, a common language is nouchi, an Ivorian French that is entirely its own. Musicians from Francophone Africa fill stadiums in France and have a significant influence on Francophone culture.
“It’s clear what the demographics say. The international nature of the French language is highly dependent upon Africa,” said Souleymane Bachir Diagne, professor and chair of the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University.
France has long been dependent on Africa. In World War II, for example, African soldiers paved the way for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Army to march on Paris. But if African speakers are to save the French language, the education systems in Francophone Africa require urgent intervention, Professor Diagne believes.
“The future of French depends on the good shape of the educational systems in African countries and in the continuous commitment of African states and governments to keep French their official language,” Diagne said.
Michaëlle Jean, the current head of Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), France’s version of the Commonwealth, stressed the importance of more international aid for education to the OIF’s member states that gathered in Dakar, Senegal, in February. Jean argued that many Francophone African countries cannot expand their education systems to keep pace with population growth while facing security threats.
“We must invest in education while admitting that we can no longer ask developing countries to do ever more in a context of demographic pressure and often persistent terrorist threat, crisis or conflict,” Jean said.
Success rates for the baccalaureat (pre-university) exam in 2017 were 32.6 percent in Mali, 31.6 percent in Senegal, 44.9 percent in Ivory Coast and 27.6 percent in Congo. The challenge of raising literacy rates, which hover mostly between 30 and 50 percent in Francophone Africa, must also be addressed.
The case of Rwanda is instructive. A former Belgian colony, Rwanda’s language of administration and education was French until 2009, when President Paul Kagame — who was schooled in English in neighboring Uganda — changed it to English; Rwanda then joined the Commonwealth. If other countries feel that the French language holds their development back, they can follow Rwanda’s path.
President Macron seemed to partly recognize this reality in late May. The OIF is to elect a new secretary-general shortly, and Macron’s preferred candidate is the foreign minister of Rwanda, Louise Mushikiwabo. While the results of Macron’s efforts to woo Rwanda back into the Francophone fold remain to be seen, he has his work cut out for him if he wants to match his rhetoric of a “French liberated from France.” He could start by reforming the Academy to reflect the global diversity of French speakers.
Argot in France
Wesh, from Arabic, is a word that can be added to the beginnings and ends of sentences, like punctuation. “Wesh gros” or “Wesh ma gueule” can be a friendly greeting, in a way that “Yo, my guy” is in New York English. When added to the end of a sentence, it becomes a familiar way of forming a pause between thoughts, or ending one with a hint of intrigue, along the lines of “C’est ça, wesh” for “it’s just like that.” “Wesh” provides rhythm and flourish to sentences.
La mif refers to “la famille” in the broader sense. Anyone you are close to and see on a daily or near-daily basis can be referred to as “la mif.” “La mid” has been in use for numerous years but was popularized recently by the rap group PNL.
Meuf is a verlan word for “woman” or “wife” that has gone mainstream. It is a reverse pronunciation of “femme” and has been around for decades.
Kiffer is another Arabic term that has left the banlieues and hit the broader public. It means “to love,” and “Je te kiffe” has replaced “Je t’aime as the most romantic phrase in the French language.
Bicrave comes from Roma, the language of Roma people, and means “to sell.” None of these words are featured in the dictionary published by the Académie Française.
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Joe Penney is a writer and photographer who lives in New York City. His articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. His most recent article, for The Intercept, focused on the US drone base in Niger. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014.
Penney co-founded Sahelien.com, a news site covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.