French-speakers voice new fears over English
French-speaking political leaders meeting in the Swiss capital, Bern, have called for their language to be defended against the onslaught of English.
Representatives of French-speaking parliaments from around the world heard the oft-repeated rallying cry from the secretary-general of the group - and former United Nations secretary general - Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
He said the aim of the conference was to tackle the problems the French language and French-speaking countries and regions are facing.
His words were echoed by a speaker of the Swiss parliament, Liliane Maury Pasquier, at the two-day conference in Bern.
More than communication
She called for renewed efforts to defend "the language of Molière" and protect French-language culture. "Language is more than a means of communication, it is part of our culture and souls."
However, François Grin, a lecturer at Geneva university told swissinfo that such warnings were exaggerated.
He said English was not a threat to French, but rather to linguistic diversity, as would be any language that achieved hegemonic status.
He added that the dominance of English could lead to progressive disempowerment of many people in society, such as those who did not have access to instruction.
The assembly of more than 200 members of parliaments from around the world also discussed global issues including the fight against poverty, hunger and Aids.
Boutros-Ghali said Switzerland, a country with a long-standing humanitarian tradition, had an important role to play.
Switzerland is one of the main contributors to the organisation, which represents more than 50 countries.
The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, said it had taken Switzerland more than 20 years to join the organisation of French-speaking countries because of concerns over a delicate balance between the four official languages in Switzerland.
He pointed out that Switzerland with its different languages and cultures was willing to share its experience with other member countries.
Next December Switzerland will for the first time organise a ministerial conference of French-speaking countries in the city of Lausanne.
It is only the second time in the history of the organisation that Switzerland is the venue for an annual meeting of the parliamentary assembly. In 1979 Geneva played host to the parliamentary assembly of French-speaking countries.
Switzerland, although a mainly German-speaking country, has three other official languages. French speakers in Switzerland account for about 20 per cent of the overall population.
The activities of the Organisation of French-speaking countries include the promotion of the French language and culture around the world. The group also aims to promote peace and democracy among its member states.
The Swiss ambassador to the Paris-based organisation, Jean-Pierre Vettovaglia, told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper that these aims were in line with Switzerland's foreign policy.
The parliamentary assembly acts as an advisory body to the ministerial conference of Francophone countries.
by Scott Capper and Urs Geiser
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