World View: Ireland must give more than lip service to Francophonie

Transactional logic must link with linguistics as State courts French-speaking nations

Is Ireland’s embrace of the Francophonie a shrewd strategic move or a sign that cute hoorism animates Irish foreign policy as much as it does domestic politics?

Having applied for observer status last year, Ireland was formally admitted to the Commonwealth-style club of French-speaking states at its biennial summit in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, in mid-October. "Our values are your values," Helen McEntee, Minister of State for European Affairs, told the gathering (in French), stressing the post-colonial legacy Ireland shared with many members as well as its openness to other cultures and ideas.

The application to join was a direct outcome of the Brexit referendum. The UK’s inward turn shone a harsh light on Ireland’s over-dependence on its neighbour as a political ally and an export market. Like a saver who realises the bank she entrusted with her life savings is about to hit the rocks, Dublin suddenly found itself exposed. Cultivating new relationships became a national priority overnight.

Through the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, to give it its full name, Ireland will plug itself into new global networks while bringing itself further into the French orbit at a time when that relationship – France will soon be Ireland's closest neighbour in the EU – needs careful tending. Of particular interest to Dublin is francophone Africa, a space that makes up more than half the continent but in which Ireland has no resident diplomatic presence.


The Francophonie is at ease with its own contradictions

What opens Ireland to the charge of cynical opportunism, of course, is that the Francophonie is, as the name suggests, a community of French-speakers.

That was a theme of Emmanuel Macron’s speech in Yerevan, where the French president emphasised the linguistic ties that held the club together and reflected on the idea that French offered a particular way of seeing the world.

In truth, the Francophonie means different things to different members. For France, its most powerful state and chief funder, it is a means of buttressing its global influence while promoting the language of Molière. For poorer or more isolated states, part of the appeal lies in “economic co-operation”, often code for money from rich countries. For all 88 members, including the 27 observers, the multilateral setting offers useful opportunities to build networks and gather intelligence.

At last month's summit, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo and Serbia – three countries with tenuous connections to the global community of French speakers – became full members.

The Francophonie is at ease with its own contradictions; an organisation whose stated aims include the promotion of democracy and human rights has among its members several states run by despots.

In Yerevan last month, Saudi Arabia withdrew its own application for membership at the last minute only after a clutch of states, led by Canada, raised objections after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It pledges fealty to the ideal of plurilingualism while parking the issue in an under-funded education system and taking comfort in illusions and clichés

Ireland has been upfront about its rationale for joining. In a statement setting out its thinking this time last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs didn’t once refer to the French language or culture, focusing instead on the expansion of Irish influence and trade diversification. (In Yerevan, McEntee dwelt longer on the importance Ireland attached to the French language and to linguistic diversity; it would have been rude not to.)

Joining the Francophonie as an observer is a no-brainer. It should have happened long ago. Yet the manner of Ireland’s joining still feels somehow inadequate, or at least insufficient. The strategic reorientation Brexit will force on Ireland will be a huge undertaking, taking in culture and attitudes as much as alliance-building and commerce.

Opening new embassies and trade offices is only the beginning. If Ireland is going to engage more meaningfully with more countries, for example, Irish people – and the State itself – will have to shed their ambivalence about learning other people’s languages. That alone would require a fundamental shift in thinking.

Illusion and cliché

Brexit reminds us that Ireland is almost totally enclosed in an anglophone bubble. Politics, business and the arts, by and large, look to the rest of the anglosphere for lessons and inspiration. Despite the initial linguistic advantage bestowed by the introduction of a second language (Irish) in schools from an early age, official ambivalence filters down, with the result that standards are low across the board and the State appears not to see it as a problem.

It pledges fealty to the ideal of plurilingualism while parking the issue in an under-funded education system and taking comfort in illusions and clichés – Beckett switched to French! City-breaks to Berlin! Scandi noir! – that merely underline how superficial most engagement with the rest of Europe really is.

Francophonie membership could have been used to make a far broader case for fixing Ireland’s chronic problem with languages. That would make sense even within the purely transactional logic that underpins the Government’s decision to join, because while one of the best arguments for proficiency in languages is that it makes the world a more interesting place, another is that it’s a national imperative, especially for a country whose economic model is predicated on involvement with the outside world.

Government Ministers never tire of stressing how Ireland gains from speaking English. But it loses far more by not speaking much else.