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France has launched efforts to preserve the French language in diplomatic circles

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It brings an entirely new context — and not an entirely linguistic one — to the concept of “French lessons.” Lady Catherine Ashton, the new and oft-maligned high representative of the European Union, does not speak French well.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It brings an entirely new context — and not an entirely linguistic one — to the concept of “French lessons.”

Lady Catherine Ashton, the new and oft-maligned high representative of the European Union, does not speak French well. (Gasp!) And she generally declines to speak it at all in her highly-visible position as the face of EU foreign policy. “Oui, je peux parler francais, mais je ne suis pas tres bien en francais,” she said recently. (“Yes, I’m able to speak French, but I’m not so good at it.”)

The British baroness has been lambasted in her new post for everything from her appearance, to her decision not to visit Haiti immediately after the January earthquake, to whether she was sufficiently critical of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. But the French media has shown particular disdain for her discomfort speaking in what is regarded as the historic language of diplomacy. Once upon a time, this “flaw” would surely have prevented her from being appointed at all.

Now the French government, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the International Organization of Francophonie (OIF), has invited Ashton to brush up her French with an immersion course at a chalet in southern France. If a barb was intended, it has been blunted by Ashton’s acceptance and purported delight. She’s already planning to squeeze the course in this spring.

But English has not entirely taken over. French is still officially one of the six working languages at the United Nations, one of three working languages (along with English and German) out of the 20 languages of the EU, and at NATO it shares the status of official language with English. So why do francophones fear they are in a losing battle to keep French as Europe’s lingua franca?

It’s not all in their imaginations: According to the website of the French Senate, the proportion of European Commission documents drafted in French has declined dramatically since 1996, from 38 percent to 11.8 percent in 2008. At the same time, the proportion of documents drafted in English has increased from 45.7 percent to 72.48 percent.

“I cannot accept that we are imposed on systematically to speak English,” said one prominent French-speaking member of the European Parliament (EP), Louis Michel of Belgium, in English. “English is not the only language in the world!” Giving the keynote address at an OIF event, Michel insisted that his fellow francophones start speaking up — loudly, and in their mother tongue.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is taking the matter even more seriously. He has appointed a former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as a “special envoy on francophonie” to lobby institutions to maintain the use of French. Raffarin has been to both Brussels and U.N. headquarters in New York to press Paris’ case.

At the EP, Michel said, “when you are in committee and you have 25 people speaking only French but one speaking English, you are obliged to speak English. This is not fair!”

He went so far as to call it “linguistic terrorism” against francophones.

Peter Adler, a press officer with the largest political grouping in the EP, the European People’s Party, said there has been enormous change since he began his career in parliament in the early 1990s. At that time, he recalled, most legislation was drafted in French and later translated into the other languages.

“If you wanted to have the early news about what was in the latest commission proposal,” Adler said, “you had to read it in French. Now 80 percent is drafted in English and then translated.”

A Dane who has been fluent in French since his youth, Adler just shrugged when asked whether this was fair to francophones. “It’s just a fact that we’ve got lots of colleagues who speak English. It’s just the way it is.”

But Michel suspects there’s more to this trend than simply the fact that EU enlargement to eastern Europe has brought to Brussels many people whose second language is English, not French, or that English is considered the easier of the two languages to learn. “There’s also a strategy from the anglophone world,” he said, “[trying to] impose English as the only language that all over the world has to be spoken … . Imagine the advantage it is for those who are speaking the mother language.”

He says the pattern can be found in all international institutions, including the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the latter of which is headed, incidentally, by former French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

But the French aren’t the only ones concerned about the decline. Robert Compaore, a consular official in the embassy of the francophone African nation Burkina Faso, said French is unquestionably the most important language for his country. As English takes over, he said, “it’s difficult for us. We hope French will become more and more used.”

A few blocks away from the parliament sits the Alliance Francaise, one of the world’s largest French-language schools, which also seeks to promote French culture and arts. Despite what may be a decline in the use of French elsewhere, at the Alliance there’s no shortage of interest, said the director, Pascale de Schuyter Hualpa. “Not at all!” she said emphatically. “We have grown.” She said that is the case at Alliance branches around the world.

One Alliance student, Greek diplomat Charalampos Moulkiotis, said he is learning French primarily to help him with daily life in Belgium, where about 40 percent of the population speaks French. “The work language is English,” he said. “[French] helps sometimes but it’s not so essential.”

Hungarian journalist Gyorgy Foris, however, has a different perspective. He is taking the courses because “as a working tool, it’s necessary. There are very, very many situations when the partners talk just in French or prefer to talk in French.” Foris noted that French officials also prefer to talk to journalists who speak French, even if it is imperfect. “It’s an immediate switch” in attitude, he said, if French leaders are addressed in their own tongue.

Lady Ashton can only hope she has a similar experience when she returns from her week in the French countryside.