Last year, I was invited as one of a “minority of ‘Francophonists’ [. . .] the squeaky wheels who challenge European-focussed curricula” to give a Roundtable address at the Australian Society of French Studies conference on the topic “Études françaises? Études francophones? Australian University ‘French’ Curricula”. My fellow speakers (Trudy Agar from Auckland University and Chris Hogarth from the University of South Australia) and I spoke about the situations in our respective universities and how we design curricula to accommodate cultural production from outside of metropolitan France in our programs. Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion, however, was the deconstruction of the “French and Francophone” appellation and the importance of taking an inclusive, diverse approach to teaching the discipline in the Australian context. In this blog post, I have reproduced the parts of my paper, presented on 9 December 2015 in Newcastle, that pertain to these points.
Bonjour à tous ! Today I am here as one of the “squeaky wheels” in French Studies in Australia. I am Head of French at Macquarie University where we have broken the mould, gone out on a limb, and called ourselves “French and Francophone Studies”. I confess, it was I who instigated the name change at Macquarie but I cannot claim innovation there. It is not very original. While Australian universities may be somewhat conservative in this regard, French and Francophone Studies sections and departments exist around the world, notably in the UK, the US and Canada. Neither was it a decision I took lightly, despite my own research background that might indicate that it was something of a forgone conclusion.
What is a “Francophonist”?
Before I expand on that, I’d like to make a brief comment on the label “Francophonist” that was used by the conference organisers in the abstract for this Roundtable.[i] When I read the abstract, the term jumped out at me and struck me as quite odd. We don’t say a Frenchist, so why a “Francophonist”? For me it has a strong whiff of anthropology about it. It brought to mind other uncomfortable terms such as “Melanesianist” or “Africanist” that can be heard in academic circles. “Francophonist” conjures up a sense of othering or exoticism that we do not get when we say we are a “French scholar”, for instance. It is definitely not a term I would use to describe myself.
It is true that I am very interested in the French-speaking world beyond Europe. My research does focus on peoples living in spaces ravaged by colonialism and I do investigate their histories and linguistic, literary and cultural productions in a postcolonial context. I also publish in many fields outside of what might traditionally be seen as French Studies. I am interested in histories of migration, movement, contact, creolisation, transnationalism… but “Francophonist” is just not a descriptor I would choose for myself.
Why “French and Francophone Studies” at Macquarie?
If I am not totally at ease with “Francophonist”, then, why did I call our program “French and Francophone Studies”? If we stop to analyse it, it is such a loaded juxtaposition of terms. For a linguist, having French and Francophone together might seem somewhat superfluous, if not downright ridiculous. France is, after all, a French-speaking country and, therefore, a Francophone country, so why have the two? Maybe we could just snip out the French bit and just say Francophone Studies? That might well work. But then, the linguist will likely think of the inherent linguistic imperialism of the francophonie movement and realise that it is indeed a politically charged term.
For the literary scholars, “French and Francophone Studies” calls to mind the whole debate around the privileging of metropolitan literary production as “French” and everything else as “Francophone”. This division implies a certain imperialistic value judgement. If it were purely geographical, it might pass, but a problem arises when migrant writers (or French-born writers with migrant parents for that matter) writing and publishing in France are referred to as “Francophone” when logic and “Republican values” dictate that they should be French. The use of the identifier “Francophone” can thus be seen as introducing a hierarchical, racially-based, othering dichotomy and, oh dear… problems…
Or perhaps not? Maybe it is precisely this sort of paradox that promotes the critical thinking that we hope to coax out of our students? It is also more in tune with a postcolonial analysis that considers identity formation as a legacy of colonialism, as something inseparable from it. And it certainly highlights the unevenness or the inequalities of the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” motto, the so-called universalist values of the Republic. Let’s face it, we all know that if your name is Mourad, Momo or Myriam in France right now, you are going to be treated a little less equally than your neighbours, Jean-Michel and Marie.
This reading of “French and Francophone” converges with that of scholars investigating the history of migrations through colonialism and Empire-building. For them (us), Francophone is more of a spatial concept, a concern with parts of the world where the French left a trail of imperial destruction and where there has been subsequent contact, métissage of languages, identities, cultures etc. In all cases, the combination of “French and Francophone” alerts us to power differences, questions of identity, and relations with the other. It signals critical engagement, intellectual enquiry, possibilities for research, inclusion – even if it can be read as exclusion. The very fact that we acknowledge the exclusion is somehow an act of inclusiveness. For me, you just can’t have French without Francophone and vice versa.
Responsibilities to our students in the postcolonial Australian context
As French and Francophone scholars, teachers, researchers and cultural mediators in the Australian context, the decentring of our discipline is of utmost relevance. We are operating from the traditional periphery, in a colonial/postcolonial space that has borne witness to some of the most violent forms of imperialism on the bodies, cultures and languages of the indigenous first peoples. If we choose to privilege only French cultural production (whatever that might be – I mean, what is French? Don’t we need the whole historical picture to get any kind of understanding of that term?) but, for argument’s sake, let’s say metropolitan French, European French, white French, the “standard French” language, the literary canon (books by dead white men), the grand narratives of French history, aren’t we playing a hand in the continuation of that violence? Aren’t we saying to the students, voilà, these privileged, white, adventurous, terribly smart, people,… this all-embracing, universalist, centre of civilisation and culture,… these ideas, these stories… are the only ones of value?
By ignoring the vast, rich, histories, cultures, languages, experiences of the French-speaking world beyond metropolitan borders, by whitewashing the student experience, by failing to address French imperialism and its aftermath, we are doing our students grappling with and coming to terms with their place in a postcolonial world, a great disservice. We owe it to them to be inclusive in our teaching, in our research so that they can engage with the academic, political and critical conversations that are happening and make links with their own experiences. In university Learning and Teaching-speak, it fulfils the graduate capability of becoming “engaged and ethical local and global citizens”.
[. . .]
In our French and Francophone Studies section at Macquarie, we have made a concerted effort to overturn a traditional, metropolitan, purely language-focused curriculum to include those histories, narratives, voices, productions from around the French-speaking world and to acknowledge their role in an understanding of what it means to be French. By doing so, we do not exclude the classics, the dead white men (and women) – rather we include alongside, read alongside, privilege just as much those other stories that are so relevant to our students, that speak to our postcolonial context here in Australia, that engage them in critical thinking and that allow us to foster a vibrant interdisciplinary research culture. French and Francophone Studies opens up possibilities and spaces for dialogue and that is essential for twenty-first century learning.
[i] Here is the abstract for the Roundtable that was sent to myself and the other speakers by the conference organisers:
The debates about how to reconcile the ‘French’ and ‘Francophone’ in curricula are neither new, nor a subject about which much consensus tends to emerge. A minority of ‘Francophonists’, those whose work engages with cultural production from outside of France, have often been the squeaky wheels who challenge European-focussed curricula. The compromise position within university settings, be it in Australia and elsewhere, has typically been to acknowledge the broader French speaking world in beginner and intermediate language classes, but to reserve in-depth considerations of the culture, literature and/or language (if the latter is ever truly addressed) of non-Hexagonal French-speaking societies for the upper-level subjects that are most often taken by students specialising in French. The purpose of this panel is to examine whether or not this model is meeting the needs of our students – and ourselves as a scholarly and professional body – and to venture ideas about the future of what it will mean to teach and study ‘French’.