Winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt for her novel Lullaby (“Chanson douce”), Leïla Slimani was appointed a personal representative of the French Head of State as Francophone Affairs Minister in November 2017. Since then the Franco-Moroccan writer has travelled widely to promote the richness of the French language. Interview with the young Francophone Affairs Minister.
What convinced you to volunteer to be an ambassador for the French language and to become the personal representative of the Head of State to the Francophone world?
I believe that today it is important to fight against the tendency that some people have to ideologise languages: casting Arabic as the language of Islamists, French the language of colonizers. This discourse is dangerous and devastating, and risks depriving young people of the extraordinary gift of multilingualism. It was to defend this belief that I accepted this position.
I thus represent France within the International Organisation of La Francophonie, which is currently experiencing a critical moment, thanks to its new General Secretary Louise Mushikiwabo and a shared great desire for change.
What has the experience of working as the Francophone Affairs Minister been like for you? What lessons do you take from your meetings and trips?
It is a fascinating and very rewarding job on a human level. French is a global language, which lives and flourishes on all the continents, with accents, turns of phrase and metaphors which belong to each landscape. It is quite extraordinary to see the flexibility of this language and to understand its constant creolisation and transformation.
You say that French is a "language of desire" and that we must "revive contemporary interest in the Francophone world". How can the French language reach and attract new audiences, for example young people?
Abroad, French often has the reputation of being a difficult, highly literary language. A rarified language that belongs to intellectuals. However, it is important to show young people that it is also a language of modernity, a language of rap and slam poetry, for thinking about the world of tomorrow and inventing. And also that French is also a useful language through which you can find work.
As a Franco-Moroccan writer, what is your relationship with the French language?
French is the tool of my work and therefore a kind of obsession for me.
What about multilingualism?
I speak French, English and an Arabic dialect. This is something that is very natural for me and that I don’t think about.
In his speech on 20th March 2018 to the French Academy, the President of the Republic emphasised multilingualism. Why is multilingualism one of the major challenges facing the French language internationally?
Because it is the future of all humanity! The more languages we speak the more humanity we gain. In our increasingly-open world, it is no longer acceptable for one language to dominate others or for certain languages to be proclaimed superior to others in terms of values, for example. Many young Africans, for example, have grown up with this multilingualism. It must be preserved and strengthened because it represents a real opportunity.
Chanson Douce, de Leïla Slimani
Leïla Slimani supported the Institut français in 2018 to set up the “My Idea for French” consultation, which led to the March 2018 Presidential Plan for the French Language and Multilingualism.
In 2018 Chanson douce was translated into Bengali (India) with the support of the Institut français. Through its translation support programmes, the Institut français participates in the global dissemination of French-language literature.
Leïla Slimani is regularly invited to take part in events across the French cultural network abroad. In 2019, she will be affiliated with the edition of the LabCitoyen organised by the Institut français for Women’s Rights.
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