Mali Removes French as Their Official Language

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Mali supporters waving their national flag (Image Credit: Africanews)

In recent days, Mali has removed French from being the official language of communication to being a working language following the implementation of its new constitution, even though French has been Mali’s official language since it gained independence in 1960. This decision was taken after a vast majority of the citizens (96.91%) voted for the constitution during the June 18 referendum, which observed a 38 percent voter turnout. This leads us to question the place of the French language and overall soft power in the African continent. 

Mali is not the only African country to have a deep relationship with the French language as in Africa, French coexists with other languages like English, Arabic, Portuguese, or Spanish depending on the country’s history with colonization but also its geographic position and the background of the individuals. However, many specialists were reticent about the presence of European languages like French in Africa. It’s only in Africa where if somebody does not speak a European language, that person is looked down upon,” said Keïta, a Carleton College professor.

Around 163 million Africans speak French, and 18 contiguous countries share French as an official or vehicular language, even though the percentage of French speakers increased by 15% between 2018 and 2022 for sub-Saharan Africa. France has long been considered the “policeman of Africa”. That time is over. But for all that, France cannot fail to have a policy towards Africa, quite simply because of the importance of the continent, which is increasingly affirmed on the world stage, and the fact that more and more countries are active in Africa.

The future of France in Africa seems very complicated as “anti-French sentiment” is on the rise in Africa. This “anti-French sentiment” refers to the hostility felt by most of the African public, which rejects all forms of French presence (military above all, but diplomatic and economic as well) It’s important to note that this sentiment has a historical and socio-economical background, as the colonization of Africa left a deep-rooted trauma in a lot of African families and tributes. There has also been a significant decrease in technical cooperation, visa restrictions, and cultural differences between the continents, countries, and religions.

Some examples of the hardships of the “France-Africa” relation are, in particular, the spectacular rejection of the military presence of France in Mali and Burkina Faso by the new military powers in place in Bamako and Ouagadougou. But, almost everywhere, there is a weakening of the attractiveness of France. France’s share in African trade has fallen from 10 to 5% in a quarter of a century. There is a growing appetite for other powers for Africa. The continent, which was abandoned in the 1990s, is now being courted by everyone: China, Japan, the United States, Russia, Turkey, and even the United Arab Emirates… Many powers have developed an African policy.

All those factors led the French president to declare, “France is very sensitive to these questions of prestige and soft power on the continent”. French President Emmanuel Macron has also repeatedly visited former colonies since his 2022 re-election, pitching the relationship as one between equals and seeking to lessen Russian and Chinese influence in Francophone Africa.

In conclusion, as Africa asserts itself on the global stage and diversifies its international partnerships, the future of France in the continent remains intricate. The complex interplay between historical legacies, socio-economic realities, and changing power dynamics shapes the trajectory of the French language and its associated soft power in Africa. In navigating these complexities, African nations and their partners must find a delicate balance between preserving cultural heritage, promoting linguistic diversity, and forging new, equitable partnerships for the continent’s advancement.

Written by Imane Moumen

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