Francophones around the world celebrate the International Francophone Day on March 20. This day is the focal point of a two-week celebration, the National Francophone Week. This year’s celebration took place in Vietnam. The International Francophone Day was first celebrated in 1998 as a way for the 49 members of the International Organization of La Francophonie (IOF) to cherish their shared bonds, French language, and their cultural assets and diversity. Vietnam, the largest of the three former French colonies in Southeast Asia, houses the Francophonie Asian headquarters.
The presence of French in Vietnam
As a language, French entered Vietnamese society during the 18th century after France played a key role in the reunification of Vietnam, and thus replaced Portugal to become the primary European power in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the biggest influence French had in Vietnamese culture was the institution of the Roman alphabet. Vietnamese uses the Latin script, particularly the Portuguese alphabet, with accents and diagrams. The history behind Vietnam’s implementation of to the Roman alphabet starts with the Portuguese Catholic missionaries, who used Latin script to translate the Vietnamese language. However, it was during the French Indochina that the present Vietnamese alphabet gained force. Due to its usage of the Latin script, the Vietnamese alphabet helped spread literacy among society.
After the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese French speakers left the country, contributing to the decline of French’s importance in society. Furthermore, English came to replace French as the most studied second language, and the language of trade, commerce and diplomacy. Despite these trends, French is facing a revival in Vietnam’s education. However, French is the most important language in higher education, and a large number of educated professionals, particularly older ones, continue to speak French. This example of colonial heritage, the influence it had in the creation of the Vietnamese alphabet, and its membership in La Francophonie makes French an important aspect of Vietnam regardless of its diminishing presence in society over the years following the culmination of the Vietnam War.
Current situation of French language
The use of French in Vietnam is searching for a second wind. With an estimated 600,000 French speakers in Vietnam, it is less than 1% of the population. However, French studies maintain its respectful place and prestige. Beyond its practical use, learning French ensures access to knowledge and culture.
The survival of the francophone press in Vietnam may not be driven by large audience but rather by Vietnam’s political choice in expressing its sense of belonging in the international community through its membership in the Francophonie.
While English is now the most studied foreign language, French has developed its own niche approach in offering specialized studies in some areas such as science, law, medicine and management.
Vietnam continues to have a French-media market and presence. Le Courrier du Vietnam is the main French language newspaper published in Vietnam. First established in 1964, it has been since the most circulated French language news medium in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
The Vietnam News Agency produces a TV news program in French aired every week on its state television. The Agency, who turns 70 this year, maintains a sixty news writer’s team providing content for its publications and websites in four languages, English, French, Chinese and Spanish. The survival of the francophone press in Vietnam may not be driven by large audience but rather by Vietnam’s political choice in expressing its sense of belonging in the international community through its membership in the Francophonie.
The presence of the International Francophone Organization in Vietnam through its Asia Pacific’s Office in Hanoi has been instrumental in developing innovative projects. One of them is a French training program for diplomats in Asia and other regions being offered at The Diplomatic Academy in Vietnam. Although French language no longer boasts an advantage, the cooperation among French-speaking countries is still of significance. This is one of the important diplomatic channels, which creates and brings opportunities and benefits to Vietnam.
Francophonie and promotion of people’s rights
On September 15th 2015, at the Summit of French-speaking countries, held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly’s 60th Summit in New York, Vietnam’s Vice President, Ms. Truong My Hoa reaffirmed her country’s continued cooperation with French-speaking countries in promoting democracy and ensuring the people’s rights She said that exchanging views frankly and sharing experiences provide mutual understanding within the French-speaking community and helps to promote democracy, freedom, and the people’s rights in each member country.