French Language Eyes “le Comeback”
As Britain Leaves Europe
nce upon a time speaking French was easy in Brussels， but things have changed.
Bruno Le Maire， France's finance minister， felt that keenly during a recent panel event with European steel-makers after several hours of speaking English with EU counterparts.
“Maybe one in French if possible， otherwise I will run the risk of being criticised，” Le Maire， who speaks perfect English， said as he scanned the audience for questions.
But raised hands quickly dropped away， leaving just one from a journalist， who asked the question in English anyway.
Such is the fate of the speaker of French in today's EU bubble， that small world of European decision-making where the language of Catherine Deneuve and Moliere was once essential.
Even after the shock vote of Brexit， English is firmly rooted as the lingua franca of the Brussels elite.
“In the last 20 years， English has become completely dominant. French is not going to replace English in any way，” said Nicolas Veyron， one of the most respected economists in Brussels， who spends most of his day speaking English although he is French.
That reality stings for French-speaking veterans of the Brussels bubble who remember a time when the top echelon of Europe was a coterie of francophones.
“The retreat of French has been catastrophic，”said Jean Quatremer， the longtime EU correspondent for French daily Liberation who has champoined holding the line against the advance of English.
The sea-change for French-speaking came in 2004， when a raft of former Warsaw pact countries entered the union， changing the face of the EU forever.
“In came all these new faces and no one spoke French，” said Karen Massin， a prominent Brussels lobbyist from France who began her career in European affairs at that time.
“That was the real shift and the EU professional world switched totally to English，” she said.
This is not to say that French has disappeared -not least because Brussels， the Belgian capital， is francophone.
On Tuesday French President Emmanuel Macron is set to announce a plan to promote the French language on the “International Francophonie Day” - the latest in a series of measures by the young French leader to restore the primacy of his native language in Europe and further afield.
Officially， along with English and German， French remains a language of business in the EU. Eighty percent of the commission's roughly 30，000 employees claim it as a first， second or third language， the commission said.
But resorting to “bastardised English” as a common language can lead to “disasters” when laws are being written in a language in which no one involved is a native speaker.
Amid the shock of Brexit， talk in Brussels was that English would be on the decline given that it was only an official langauge for small members Ireland and Malta.
However， in terms of the most common foreign languages spoken， the linguistic map of Europe still has English in front as the most widely spoken foreign language at 38 percent followed by French at 12 percent.
Given the realities， no one believes that a push by France could see French return to its prominence during the EU's early days.
“The so-called francophonie is reliving a sweet dream from the past. Much like the British commonwealth， it's a nice idea but unattainable，” the lobbyist Massin said.