Quebec leads the battle for French. French-speakers fight to keep their language alive

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``If the battle for French is lost here in Quebec, the battle is lost,'' says Louis Dassault, director general of the Secr'etariat permanent des peuples francophones, a Quebec-financed organization dedicated to promoting and supporting French in North America. It was here, in 1759, that British general James Wolfe won his historic battle with the French forces of the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, now National Battlefields Park. This was a victory that ensured British conquest of New France, and thus the dominance of English on the North American continent.

It is here today that the heirs of those French colonists are continuing their struggle to save their language.

English-speaking peoples do little consciously to promote the use of their language in the world. English has spread naturally as it became the dominant means of communication in commerce, science, and, nowadays, diplomacy.

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That's not the case for French. The governments of both the Province of Quebec and of France spend large sums to encourage the usage of French outside their own domains.

``We are now at a stage which I could call `last-chance Francophonie,''' states Jean-Marc L'eger, the province's general commissioner to Francophonie and honorary secretary of the Agence de coop'eration culturelle et technique, a Paris-based international organization developing cooperation in culture and technology in French-speaking countries.

Mr. L'eger says that ``the pace of history has stepped up so greatly and the rising perils, particularly in the cultural sector, are so evident that if we Francophones cannot develop a true movement of progress and solidarity and set up mechanisms for mutual understanding, reciprocity, and development in the years ahead, there is a great risk that this will be impossible by the end of the century.''

This city was the site for the second Francophone summit in early September, bringing together the leaders of 38 countries in which French is spoken. It was also the location in June for the 10th Assembly of Francophones of America, with 600 delegates from Francophone groups in various parts of the continent.

It was organized by Mr. Dassault's group, with financial help from the province and the federal government. Dassault is now busy organizing a similar meeting of Francophone organizations from around the world - Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America - for next fall. This one is expected to bring together as many as 400 heads of what Dassault calls ``the French movement.''

The 60,000 French settlers in the New World in 1769 have since multiplied enormously, and many have retained their language. There are about 5 million French-Canadians in Quebec today.

Moreover, French-Canadians spread throughout the continent during the 19th century from Quebec or Acadia on the Atlantic Coast. Today there are about 300,000 in Acadia (New Brunswick or Nova Scotia), 500,000 in Ontario, and smaller numbers in western Canadian provinces.

In the United States there are 3 million Franco-Americans, of whom about 900,000 speak French. They are concentrated in New England, Louisiana, and California (some whose ancestors joined the gold rush).

Between 1860 and 1870, almost one-third of Quebec's population moved across the US border. Commented a high official in Massachusetts at that time:

``With some exception, the Canadian French are the Chinese of the Eastern States. They care nothing for our institutions, civil, political or educational. They are a horde of individual invaders, not a stream of stable settlers.''

He proved to be wrong, of course, since most are well settled in their American homes.

In addition, there are French-speaking Indians in New York State and French-speaking m'etis (mixed Indian and white) in the Great Lakes region.

Dassault also notes that French-speakers in the US often include people from Belgium, Switzerland, Haiti, and Vietnam.

Francophones in North America in general are enjoying a resurgence of self-confidence.

For instance, R'eal P. Gilbert, president of the Action pour les Franco-am'ericains du Nord-Est, which rallies the Franco-Americans of New England and New York State, says, ``For years Franco-Americans were shy or afraid of their roots.'' Now, he says, more and more of them do not hesitate to talk proudly of their French-Canadian heritage.

Mr. Gilbert, who lives in Manchester, N.H., believes the many French-speaking Americans are a useful resource to the nation. He believes all Americans should know English. ``But we don't have to make it English only,'' he says.

Louisiana has had a governor of Cajun origin, Edwin Edwards, and the 1 million people in the state of French descent (of whom about 300,000 speak French) have a new delight in their usually second language.

``People are proud again to say, `I speak French,''' notes Philippe Gustin, director of the state government's Conseil Pour le Developpement du Fran,cais en Louisiane. That office prints signs saying, ``Soyez `a la mode, parlez fran,cais'' (``Be fashionable, speak French'').

Mr. Gustin and Darrell Hunt, an official in the governor's office, see French as a useful connection for the state with other French-speaking territories outside Canada in the areas of commerce, tourism, education, and culture.

By now French-speakers have multiple organizations throughout the continent. These include the F'ed'eration des francophones hors Quebec (French-Canadians in other Canadian provinces than Quebec), the F'ed'eration culturelle des Canadiens fran,cais, the Soci'et'e des Acadiens, the F'ed'eration des jeune Canadiens fran,cais, the Association canadienne-fran,caise de l'Ontario, the Assembl'ee des Franco-am'ericains.

Quebec carries considerable weight in North American Francophonie because of its majority French-speaking population, their language protected by law.

During the 1960s and '70s, the province underwent enormous progress in education and economics and a cleanup of its provincial government. The province is a source of French culture (movies, television shows, books, magazines, etc.), educational resources, and communication technology. The province also sponsors a computerized bank of 3.5 million technical terms in French and English, with experts inventing new French words when necessary. Officials claim it is more comprehensive than a similar language bank in France.

Dassault, whose office is in a former bank headquarters on one of the twisty downtown streets of this ancient city, recalls the struggle of French Canadians to maintain their language and culture over decades of British and then Canadian rule where the majority was English-speaking.

``We are proud to have built here a special society which has its own values,'' he says. ``We are proud of our French roots. Now we are enjoying our own heritage. It is more expensive to be French than English. But you are happy. It is happiness to die in the language you were born.''

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