An International Francophonie Day? Mais oui, on March 20

On March 20, 1970, in a city 2,435 miles from Paris and a country a continent away, International Francophonie Day was born. The Niamey Convention in Niger’s capital city marked the first of what would become an annual recognition of the French language by the 77 member countries that created the International Organization of “La Francophonie.” In 2010, UNESCO established the UN French Language Day on the same date.

But what is a language without its culture? And so, in addition to the preservation of the French tongue, Francophonie Day has among its mandates the support of research and education as well as the promotion of the French principles that address human rights.

So Very Continental

If International Francophonie Day is not red-lettered on your March calendar, consider this: with the exception of English, French is the only other language spoken on all the inhabited continents. Of course, it has always been an official language of the Olympic Games, but that’s because a Frenchman (a Parisian, in fact), Pierre de Coubertin, created them.

More important, French is a designated language of both the United Nations and the European Union, and ranks in the top three among languages for business and trade.

More than 200 million French Speakers Can’t Be Wrong

There is a certain irony in the fact that the largest groups of French speakers commemorating International Francophonie Day are not in France, or even in Europe. Of the 220 million-plus speakers of French, the most are in Africa.

What’s more, for a number of African countries, including Senegal and Congo, French is the language used in teaching even though it is not the countries’ first language. For 40 million of those using French, it is considered a foreign language.

That je ne sais quoi

But let’s face it—along with the noble and lofty reasons to mark International Francophonie Day, for many of us the cause to celebrate French is a personal one. We love its disarming, romantic sound. We revel in the gorgeous works of Voltaire and Montaigne and Proust. We delight in the bons mots that transfer a prosaic statement into a lyrical pronouncement.

And for at least one speaker of French, the language offers an unexpected source of power. In the English translation of her book The Fall of Language in the Age of English, the author and novelist Minae Mizumura explains why a Japanese girl brought to live in the United States when she was twelve ended up studying French literature at Yale:

“I had lived in the United States as an Asian girl without an adequate command of English,” she writes. “French was the perfect language with which a girl like me could gain an advantage over the monolingual Americans.”