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Douze points: Why is French an official language of so many organisations?

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Douze points: Why is French an official language of so many organisations?
French has long played a major role in international diplomacy (Photo by AFP)

If you're tuning into the Eurovision Song Contest or the Olympic Games you'll quickly notice that announcements are always made in two languages - English and French. So how did French come to be an official language for so many international organisations?

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If you live in France, speaking the language is pretty much de rigueur, but Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic are more widely spoken.

Despite this, French is an official and working language of international organisations including;

  • The United Nations
  • The European Union
  • Unesco
  • NATO
  • Interpol, the World Trade Organisation
  • The International Olympic Committee
  • The International Red Cross
  • international courts

You’ll hear it this weekend, from Liverpool, if you tune in to watch Eurovision as the venue hosts switch, almost seamlessly from one language to another - countries around Europe (and a few others, bonsoir Australia) will be waiting on tenterhooks to see if they get the maximum douze points or the dreaded nul points.

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French speakers

French is the official language of 32 states and governments, and is spoken by about 321 million people, according to the international Observatoire Francophonie. It is the fifth most commonly spoken language on the planet - we’ve mentioned the top four already. And - with English - it is one of only two languages spoken on every continent.

It is the 3rd-most used language of business and the fourth-most common language on the internet.

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of French speakers rose 9.6 percent, according to official figures, with Africa seeing the fastest growth. Some estimates suggest that it could become the most commonly spoken language in the world by 2050, such is its growth.

But if its only the fifth most-spoken language, why don't we see English and Chinese as the official languages of the Olympics? Or Spanish used at Eurovision?

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History 

While clearly some of the history of the French language is linked to colonialism - particularly in the many African and Asian countries that have French as one of their official languages - it doesn't explain the dominance within European and global organisations. 

There's no official history of the French language's changing role - but, as well as its importance for business and online communication, French remains the second most important language for diplomacy. About 100 years ago, it was diplomatic top dog.

It wasn’t until 1919 that English started replacing French as the lingua franca of world diplomacy - the Treaty of Versailles was one of the first major international diplomatic documents written in English and French.

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Until then, French was the language of diplomacy, as it had been since at least the 17th century - some historians dare to venture as far back as the 100 Years War.

By World War II, however, it had lost that role.

Its dominance in international relations could be attributed to France’s dominant role as a European power up to the 19th century, as the language flourished along with the country. 

French politicians have fought to maintain French as a key international language of diplomacy, with some success, as it is still officially, as well as culturally important - despite the rise of English.

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