No doubt the largest linguistic and cultural gathering of the planet, the 13th Summit of “la Francophonie” has been going on this last week in the idyllic Lake Geneva Riviera town of Montreux protected by the steep Swiss Alps. Of course, you already know that this area of Switzerland speaks French. No? You thought it was only a kind of German spoken in Switzerland? Well, the majority of people of Switzerland do speak Schweizerdeutsch or Swiss German, a dialect with as many variations as there are Alpine valleys. But there are 3 other national languages which include Italian, Romansh (an ancient Roman language), and of course, French. So the “Suisse Romande” people could not be left out of this amazing celebration of “Frenchness”.
This is worldwide event as there are 70 French speaking countries or governments spread over 5 continents with 800 million French speakers. These numbers certainly cause one to reflect on why French is no longer the official diplomatic language. But then the Internet took care of any remaining hopes of francophone resurgence.
Twenty five French-speaking countries are represented in Montreux, an hour from Geneva, which has been converted into the “Village de la Francophonie”. There are 70 Heads of State attending this international summit and the “cérémonie d’ouverture” will be opened by Abdou Diouf, ex-president of Senegal, who is the current Secretary General of the “Organisation international de la Francophonie” (OIF). Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and of course, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy are also there. The Swiss president, Doris Leuthard (yes, she’s a lady!) is there on behalf of the “Suisse Romande” people although she’s from the German part of Switzerland and has a slight accent in French (but no one talks about it). Recording the event are 600 journalists from 100 different countries who are broadcasting the activities and who will go back home writing about the Swiss Alps (good for business here), and this unforgettable summit which unites art, culture, language and diplomacy.
But it’s not all so formal and serious. The program includes 50 concerts and performances, 53 chalets with cultural articles and food operated by the different countries. Some 30 francophone associations are also here to meet and greet (“à la française” kiss kiss) and participate in a round table at the medieval castle of Chillon. Many of the conferences and activities are free.
The “Organisation internationale de la francophonie”, created in 1967 and officially recognized in 1970 is an institution I which the members (state or participating governments) share the French language and certain values such as cultural diversity, peace, democracy, and the protection of the environment. Very tall order, indeed… but admirable. The objectives of the OIF are to contribute to the prevention of conflicts in French speaking areas, the promotion of democracy, and the defense of human rights. It has divisions that focus on education, culture as well as economic development in “la Francophonie”. The one prerequisite to belong is to speak and love some of the most beautiful words and phrases in the world.
Even francophone communities are present in the United Sates and some are dominant in states such as Louisiana which has in its constitution the right of using the French language in civil acts including the acquisition of citizenship. There are also large francophone communities in California and New York. However, to adhere to the OIF basically conflicts with US federal policies because there are, in fact, francophone communities in most US states. Nevertheless, Louisiana was represented at the Summit in Quebec in 2008 as a ‘special guest’.
Naturally an event of this magnitude is not without local controversy in terms of inconveniences and tight security. German speaking Swiss are less enthusiastic about the celebration of the French language and culture which is creating traffic delays getting to their prime view retirement Swiss chalets far from the maddening crowds. However, Montreux is well organized and has vast experience in large events such as the Montreux Jazz Festival, the September Classical Music Festival, the Sundance Electronic Music Festival and much more. Special transportation has been set up to get people to the main zone which is restricted to traffic (and that includes part of the lake – no one claims that Sarkozy is the most loved French president, especially as 3.5 million of his citizens took to the streets on last Tuesday to protest the change in the retirement age).
My favorite part was the performance of the 40 years of French music live TV broadcast. Some of the original performers were there or their famous songs were sung by new francophone artists from all over the French world. Sometimes, different musicians from many different francophone countries would perform together. This is the time when the authentic “Frenchness” as well as “humanness” is best understood.
Parlez-vous français? To be continued.
Stay connected for Part II. Follow me on Twitter for new posts and information.