“We in the language services industry are passionate about French,” says Philip Zietsman, MD of Folio Translation Consultants and Folio Online. “It is a beautiful and expressive language. From our earliest days in the business we have encountered a significant demand for French for Africa from clients. This tends to peak when Afcon, the Africa Cup of Nations, is on the horizon,” he says. “Soccer mania is growing prior to the January 2013 Afcon with superstar Ivoirian striker Didier Drogba taking centre stage.”
Francophone Africa comprises about 23 nations across the western bulge of Africa, northern Africa and equatorial Africa right across to tiny Djibouti on the eastern side of the continent. It includes Madagascar off the east coast, the fourth-largest island in the world.
In many of France’s former colonies, most of which gained independence around 1960, French is the official language of the country. In others, it correlates with Arabic, English or an indigenous language as an official language, or the language of commerce. In others, such as Egypt which was occupied by France from 1798 – 1801 at the height of the Napoleonic era, there is a sizeable French-speaking community and a quaintly French flavour characterises certain areas of Cairo to this day.
Without a doubt, French is the passport to success in West Africa when it comes to marketing material. Folio experiences a steady demand for translations into French from a wide variety of clients, particularly those involved in engineering, food manufacture and distribution as well as pharmaceutical, IT and telecommunications.
“In Africa, a very pure form of French is used for written communication and of course there are regional variations in the spoken language. Very often French words are incorporated into the indigenous, continually-evolving languages, such as Lingala spoken in the DRC but not so much vice versa,” says Zietsman. Whilst many of her former colonies value proficiency in French as a means of communicating with Europe and the rest of the world, two countries are going against trend. In 2009 Rwanda switched to English as an official language and Gabon recently announced plans to do the same.
The history of the French presence in Africa dates back to the Age of Exploration. In 1659 a trade port, St Louis, was established on the coast of Senegal. But it was from 1830 when France invaded Algeria, that French imperialism truly took hold in Africa. Neighbouring Tunisia was made a protectorate in 1881.
Then, as a part of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, France set its sights on a continuous west-east axis of the continent, in contrast with the British focus on domination from ‘Cape to Cairo’ along the north-south axis. Gradually, fort by fort and against sustained resistance from the inhabitants, French control was gained over a vast swathe of African territory by the turn of the century.
The modern nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea (not to be confused with Equatorial Guinea), Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal were the first West African territories conquered by France in the late 19th century. In all of these countries except Mauritania, French is an official language. Whilst most of them have a GDP lower than $10 billion, Cote d’Ivoire which generates revenue from cocoa, coffee, oil and more recently, gold, has a GDP of about $24 billion. Gabon, which trades in oil, timber and manganese and Senegal which is rich in phosphates, fish stocks, iron ore and oil, both have a GDP in the region of $15 billion.
France acquired further territories in this region later, i.e. the Republic of Cameroon and Togo, which were former German colonies awarded to it after World War I and Equatorial Guinea, which was a Spanish colony. The latter is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter and is also a leading producer of gas and cocoa. Its natural resources include gold, zinc and diamonds and its GDP is nearly $20 billion. Both Spanish and French are official languages in Equatorial Guinea.
Moving eastwards through equatorial Africa, the Francophone nations include Burundi, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Chad, the enormous Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the smaller Republic of Congo. The first two are desperately poor countries with a GDP of less than $3 billion. Rwanda, still in recovery from its genocidal civil war in 1990, has attained a GDP of just over $6 billion and its sources of foreign exchange include tourism, minerals, coffee and tea.
In the DRC, formerly a Belgian colony, French is the official language but Lingala is the lingua franca language of trade. The DRC and the Republic of Congo each have a GDP of about $15 billion, the former reliant upon mining and the latter upon oil and forestry. Chad also has oil reserves and is an exporter of cotton, cattle products and gum arabic and has a GDP of nearly $10 billion.
Over on the east side, Djibouti is significant as a free trade zone, strategically located on the Horn of Africa. Madagascar, whose tourism industry was knocked by the political upheaval which started in 2009, generated a GDP of roughly $10 billion in 2011. Both French and Malagasy are official languages on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.
As far as GDP rankings go, it is France’s former north African territories that are the jewels in the crown. Algeria, ruled by France for over a century until independence in 1962, has a GDP of $190 billion. It has the 10th-largest reserves of natural gas in the world.
France imposed a protectorate over Morocco in 1912, after a long period of Spanish occupation. In both Morocco and Tunisia, Arabic is the official language whilst French remains the language of commerce, government and diplomacy. Morocco’s GDP is just under $100 billion and that of Tunisia, just over $45 billion.
In October this year, the 14th summit of Francophonie, a gathering of leaders from 75 French-speaking countries, took place in Kinshasa in the DRC. Abdou Diouf, Francophonie secretary general said “Africa is the future of Francophonie. According to our studies there will be 715 million francophones worldwide by 2050 and 85% of them will be in Africa.”
* Source for economic information and GDP figures at 2011: CIA World Factbook.
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