Letter from Thessaloniki

trange as it may sound, two years ago, Greece, along with the Principality of Andorra, a tiny country between France and Spain with a population of 71,201, became a member of the OIF (Organization Internationale de la Francophonie), a club for French-speaking countries. The move has been viewed as part of a desperate effort to stave off the growing domination of English in the European Union. Now, strange as it may also sound, it so happened that French was the first language I spoke after my birth in Thessaloniki. Greek came later. It’s a long story. I remember other children asking me: «Are you Jewish?» I am not. Yet, it was mostly the remaining Jews who spoke French at that time in the city. Now, since we are all «Francophones» we may feel a bit primus inter pares among EU countries. For French is still the primary language at international institutions such as UNESCO, Interpol and the European Court of Justice, and the working tongue at a score of others. Last week they, that is, the French Institute of Thessaloniki, celebrating its 100 years in town, invited me to a round-table discussion held at the Museum of Photography. All speakers were defenders of France’s lovely and beloved language. Yet, I must admit that I was never able to master the intricacies of the «tu» and «vous» forms of address. We Greeks have a saying that someone «has heard his French,» meaning the same thing a Frenchman would generally use with his «tu» to insult a fellow automobilist. Whether the French wish it or not (they sure don’t) there are less and less people speaking French nowadays. And not only in Thessaloniki where the Jews who spoke it, along with Ladino, have vanished. Anglo-American has been taking hold in the economy, public services, advertising, research, the army, training and international institutions, in practically everything. There are about 380 million people who speak English as their primary language and more than 250 million who speak it as a second language, versus 113 million and over 60 million respectively for French. Could one speak of rivalry? Hardly. An international language has been accepted as valid for everyone, and it is English. I remember a pop song, «Festival of Francophonie,» in La Rochelle some years ago. The lyrics in «franglais» were overwhelmed by a bastardized English that was desperately ruined by neologisms and barbarisms. Yet the defense of the French language is hardly a dead passion. Recently the European Parliament adopted in its plenary session on April 27, 2006, a report on the promotion of multilingualism and language learning in the EU and the creation of a European indicator of language competence. The rapporteur, an ex-journalist and current MEP for New Democracy, Manolis Mavromatis, highlighted that «in the enlarged EU, it is more important than ever that European citizens possess the necessary knowledge and skills to communicate effectively.» One should bear in mind that the EU was originally a primarily French body with its main headquarters in Francophone countries. In all probability, unaware of his country’s current educational headaches, Euro-parliamentarian Manolis Mavromatis insisted in his report that: »Learning two languages in addition to the mother tongue will give motivation and opportunities to young people to exercise their right for free movement within the EU. They will have the chance to study and work in the EU 25. This is yet another reason why we should have a common language test that will indicate the true language skills of Europeans.» Personally I would advise him to forget it. Being still in a plume-de-ma-tante era, teaching nn Greece toward mastering languages in local schools is no simple task. Back to French. Clearly the French language will never be as powerful as it was in the 18th century when even American diplomats used it as their second language of choice. In a new book called «Demain la Francophonie» (Flammarion, 2006), described as a history of French «exceptionalism,» Dominique Wolton, editor of the prestigious international publication Hermes emphasizes that one should not be dominated «neither by nostalgia nor by the old empire» and that «cultural diversity is only the possible answer to globalization. » Or, as former prime minister Lionel Jospin once told a congress of French teachers, they could «contribute to more than one way of thinking.» For if French «is no longer the language of a power, it can be the language of a counter-power. One of the languages expressing resistance to the uniformity of the world.» As an only English (or only Greek) speaker, one is forcibly confined to a mental ghetto. For as French President Jacques Chirac has expressed it, «nothing would be worse for humanity than to move toward a situation where we speak only one language.»