MONTREAL – Armenia isn’t top of mind when one thinks of thriving French culture.
But this week the Armenian capital of Yerevan will be briefly transformed into a francophone mecca, a sign of the relaxed admission standards of the organization representing the French-speaking world.
Armenia, host of the two-day la Francophonie summit opening Thursday, counts a little more than 10,000 fluent French speakers out of a population of three million. That represents about 0.33 per cent of the population; it is roughly as many French speakers as live in the Quebec town of Baie Comeau.
Martin Normand, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, said the organization’s acceptance of marginally French-speaking states “certainly dilutes in a certain way the status of French, even within the Francophonie.” He says criteria for joining the 48-year-old organization have become “less and less stringent” when it comes to an expectation to promote French.
The counter-argument, he noted, is such countries “may hold the key for the future of French” as long as they commit to promoting the language.
An official at the Armenian embassy in Ottawa insisted the French language is alive and popular in the eastern European country.
“The French language has become the third (most popular) foreign language in Armenia,” said Ara Mkrtchian, the embassy’s deputy head of mission. It trails Russian and English.
French is still taught in public schools there, and Mkrtchian noted his immediate family members are all fluent in French. Armenia became a full member of the International Organization of la Francophonie six years ago.
A further connection is the nearly half-a-million Armenians who live in France. Charles Aznavour, the crooner who died this month at 94, was the most famous French-Armenian.
Mkrtchian said the summit could boost the popularity of French in his country. “Maybe in 50 years, we can compare with Canada,” he quipped.
This is not the first time the organization, which counts 84 member states and governments, has raised eyebrows by welcoming countries where French is seldom heard. For example, Macedonia and Moldova are full members, while Qatar and Ghana are associate members.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume had harsh criticism for the organization Monday on the sidelines of a France-Quebec convention in his city.
Lamenting a decline of French in Quebec, Labeaume accused the international group of neglecting “this side of the Atlantic.”
“I’ve been mayor for ten years. I’ve been involved in la Francophonie for ten years, and I have not yet understood what it gets us (in Quebec and Canada),” Labeaume told reporters, describing the institution as a “party of dignitaries” and a “landing strip for politicians at the end of their career.”
Despite his concerns about membership, Normand said he thinks the organization remains relevant. It still plays an important role in promoting French in other international bodies, he said.
Many African and eastern European countries with historic links to France use Francophonie membership as a counterweight to other large international groups.
Others see a potential economic benefit from putting forward a French face. For example, Louisiana is trying to gain member status at this week’s summit.
“If Louisiana knows how to do this, other countries in Eastern Europe or Africa surely are aware of the benefits of using that organization to promote French on their territory as well,” Normand said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec premier-designate Francois Legault are scheduled to arrive in Yerevan on Wednesday.