- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — French, battered by an explosion of English as the common language of the information age, is fighting back.

The claim was made by France’s ambassador to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Hadelin de La Tour-du-Pin, after French President Jacques Chirac stormed out of a European summit, cringing at the sound of English being spoken by a fellow Francophone.

Mr. de La Tour-du-Pin said French “is the only language present on all continents; it is important in aeronautics, rail transport, food, luxury and fashion industries.”

He arrived at his statistics on the Francophone population by the following calculation: “Almost 119 million people have French as their mother tongue or are fluent in it; a further 63 million are partly French speakers and 85 million are learning French.”

He assured Cypriots that 6,000 EU civil servants from the recently admitted 10 nations can learn French in special courses established by the French government.

Mr. de La Tour-du-Pin made his claim in a letter to the Cypriot press after the Chirac walkout March 23, which was prompted by a fellow Frenchman delivering a report in English.

“I was profoundly shocked,” Mr. Chirac said. “Our language is beautiful and must be used.”

Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of a major European business lobby, said he spoke in English because it was “the international language of business.”

Despite the ambassador’s claim of the popularity of French, the language is losing its dominance in the European Union.

EU statistics published last summer show only 7 percent of the organization’s staff from the 10 new members speak French, while 62 percent say they speak English.

Talks for the accession of former communist countries and of Malta and Cyprus were conducted in English. Twenty years ago, 58 percent of EU documents were written initially in French. That proportion has dropped to 20 percent.

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus, a former British colony, is divided into Greek and Turkish territories, and its residents speak Greek, Turkish and English. The French ambassador’s letter to Cypriots was in French with an English translation attached.

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