Literally, Francophone means “French speaking”. It describes areas of the world where French is spoken, and can also be used to describe the people who speak it.
The term is closely tied to France’s colonial past. This striking image created for the 2006 festival “Francofffonies” builds a tree from Francophone countries.
The term ‘Francophone’ was coined in 1886 by a geographer called Onésime Reclus, in a geography book called France, Algérie et colonies. France had first colonized Algeria, a country in North Africa, in 1830. Reclus was devoted to the French language and in France, Algérie et colonies, he talks about the French language’s expansion, and its promising future, thanks to colonialism. He imagines with pride that in the year 2000, French will still be a world-language spoken outside France. So the term initially emerged in a non-literary publication, a book on geography, to refer to a specific geographic expansion of the French language. From the outset, then, it also carries a set of political values, as the French language is intended to be the vehicle with which French culture is exported throughout the world.
We then find that the term francophone seems to disappear from view for a while, before coming to prominence once again in March 1962 in France, in a special edition of the cultural review Esprit on ‘le français langue vivante’. In an article in this review, Leopold Sédar Senghor ‘recoined’ or rediscovered the term.
Senghor was a Senegalese poet and also, after decolonization, the country’s President. Senegal had been one of France’s most important colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa. In March 1962, Senghor and a number of other leading intellectuals and political African leaders from the newly independent colonies contributed pieces to Esprit. They were celebrating the idea of a francophone community, built not just on the common French language, but also on a set of shared universal values, associated with the humanism of the Enlightenment and the French Republican values of inclusion, and liberté, égalité and fraternité.
In its early stages, Francophonie was primarily an intellectual movement, in which ideas, rather than political institutions, were paramount. Indeed, at the outset, the whole movement was characterized by an extreme form of idealism, in which the relations of domination between coloniser and colonised were replaced by a vision of universal harmony based on a shared culture. French language, and particularly French culture, were considered to transmit universal values; they were also viewed as the passport to participation on the world stage for countries where French was spoken.
However, in literature and other forms of cultural production, the inherent paradox of the term francophone is that, although it purports to unite different peoples and communities, it is never used for metropolitan French authors. It has come to designate all that which is outside metropolitan France. So although it appears to be a term which unites very different geographical areas, it also represents something of a barrier, keeping France distinct from her former colonies.
This website explores questions of language and identity in the work of one of the best-known Francophone authors, the Martinican writer Joseph Zobel.
Text adapted from Louise Hardwick, Childhood, Autobiography and the Francophone Caribbean (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013).