Excerpt taken from the book The Story of French (Ch.9)
The heritage of French colonialism is complex, and nowhere more so than where language is concerned. We met a young fundamentalist in Tlemcen who said he refused to speak the language of the colonizer and went as far as pretending he only spoke English (though he spoke it with a French accent). But the hostility towards France doesn’t translate neatly into a rejection of French. Among the former colonies, Algeria actually has the highest proportion of French speakers, to the point that French is hardly even a second language there. Half the population speaks French fluently, eighty percent of Algerian newspapers and most of the TV channels are French, and nearly everyone has some understanding of it.
The fact is, despite how painful Algeria’s colonial history was, the country is a striking example of how successful the French were in spreading their language during the second colonial push, which lasted roughly from 1830 to 1960. In many ways the second colonial era was the second great historical opportunity for French.
If French today is an official language in dozens of countries and territories and is widely used in Africa, the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, Polynesia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and even Latin America, it is because France and Belgium succeeded where other richer and more powerful countries failed. All European countries participated in colonialism, but France managed to carve itself out a vast empire, second only to Britain’s. In the colonial heyday of the 1930s, the French flag floated over a good third of Africa, the larger part of Indochina, a section of India, a huge swath of the Pacific, islands in the Caribbean and a chunk of South America. France also expanded its sphere of influence to Egypt, Turkey, China, Palestine and beyond. Mexico was France’s only large-scale colonial failure of the second wave, and even there it managed to attract the elites. Belgium’s possessions in central Africa–the Congo as well as Rwanda and Burundi–added to the extension of a French language empire on which, in a way, the sun still hasn’t set.
Why and how did France and Belgium succeed where Germany and the Netherlands failed, and where France had failed a century earlier? Both France and Belgium had strategic advantages such as direct access to the sea and proximity to Africa. They were also highly motivated to build empires. By the end of the nineteenth century France was falling behind its neighbours demographically and Belgium had very few natural resources left to fuel its economy. Both countries were looking for ways to compensate for these weaknesses. In the second colonial push, France adopted a more coherent approach than it had in the first. It also had remnants of the first empire-for example, Senegal and Pondicherry–that it was able to put to use as bases for the second push.