Francophonie would provide significant stability in times of crisis

Interview with Céline Carrère, a Professor at the University of Geneva and a Senior Fellow at FERDI.

Céline Carrère is a Professor at the University of Geneva and a Senior Fellow at FERDI. She is co-author of a report on the economic footprint of the French language in the world, published in 2013. The conclusions of her econometric work have provided the figures for the Attali report on economic francophonie and the OIF report on the French language in the world.

What does economic francophonie represent today?

Céline Carrère: If we define countries that have French as an official language and countries where at least 20% of the population speaks French as francophone, economic francophonie represents some thirty countries, or 6 to 7% of the global population. It accounts for approximately 7% of global GDP and 12% of global exports. It also encompasses 11% of agricultural land worldwide, 6% of the global reserves of energy resources and 14% of incoming foreign direct investment.

Economic francophonie is an advantage. When we look at the figures, we realise that speaking the same language creates economic ties. Francophone countries trade to a greater extent with one another, whether this concerns trade flows, investment or migration flows. In a recent FERDI study, we showed that having the French language in common has enabled the trade of goods between some thirty francophone countries to increase by 22%. This has increased per capita wealth by 6% in these countries and reduced the unemployment rate by 0.2%. These figures are also included in the Attali report on francophonie submitted to the government in August and in the OIF report which has recently been published. There are a larger amount of exports between francophone countries because transaction costs are lower. Speaking the same language creates a strong link, making it easy to draw up contracts, communicate and manage customs formalities, and to set up branches and establish ways of working.

When we look at the trade dynamics within the francophone area in greater detail, two facts stand out. Firstly, it appears that speaking the same language enables companies to penetrate the market more easily. This can be observed with the West African countries, for example, who trade a whole range of manufactured products - products that they do not always manage to export, at least for the moment, - outside the francophone area. Moreover, we appear to be more loyal to a partner that shares the same language. Following the crisis of 2008, we have observed trade flows decreasing dramatically between francophone and non-francophone countries, but they have fared better between francophone countries. In other words, la francophonie provides a stability that is barely noticeable when all is well − indeed we are even witnessing an erosion of the linguistic tie in the medium term − but which appears significant against the backdrop of an international crisis. This stabilising effect can also be found within the Spanish-speaking area.  These are observations and trends that we are studying.

Which are the most dynamic francophone regions? To what extent are they engines or drivers of sustainable growth for France?

Céline Carrère: Since the start of the 2000s, in terms of GDP growth per head, the most dynamic francophone regions have been Sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. 

And, according to current demographic projections, the francophone share of the global population is expected to increase sharply, reaching 8% by 2030, due to the high demographic growth of certain Sub-Saharan African countries. France could benefit from this dynamic. In the FERDI report, we deduce that trade in France should profit from this faster growth of the global francophone population, with its share of trade with francophone countries increasing by 3.5% and its opening ratio by 6.2%.

However, if France can benefit from the favourable developments offered by the "historic" francophone area, it may also have an interest in looking towards other expanding markets. For twenty years, the francophone countries have experienced lower average economic growth than that recorded by other countries, despite the 2008 financial crisis having had a lesser impact. The Attali report proposes, for example, expanding the francophone area to include the countries it classifies as "francophile", such as Nigeria or Ghana in the African continent. This would inject some dynamism into the francophone area by integrating a certain number of so-called "francophile" countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Qatar, Thailand, Vietnam or even Egypt for example.

According to the OIF, 274 million people speak French worldwide.  French is the fifth most spoken language and is facing increasing competition. Is there a risk of economic influence being lost? What would the consequences be for France and the francophone countries?

Céline Carrère: According to the OIF, French is also considered the world's third language of business after English and Chinese. It is the second most learned language in the world. If we incorporate the high demographic growth of certain francophone countries, the French language can be preserved, but the francophone network must of course be maintained or even expanded. Sharing the French language is a significant economic advantage for francophone countries, enabling increased trade as a result of the reduced transaction costs. It should also be noted that for multilingual countries, maintaining a certain linguistic diversity enables, beyond the abovementioned trade-related advantages, improved economic performance. These various links between language and economy within the francophone area will be explored in a FERDI study to be published at the start of 2015.  

Does the creation of a francophone economic union, as advocated by the Attali report submitted to the government last August, seem pertinent to you?

Céline Carrère: A new union would be adding an agreement to existing agreements that we already find difficult to implement. Nowadays, ensuring collaboration between WAEMU, CEMAC and the European Union is no easy task. This can be seen with the negotiations on the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). There are already difficulties in negotiating these agreements and these are countries with which France has a strong economic history.

It would perhaps be more opportune to strengthen collaborations already in place, as with the OHADA proposal for example. Extending the role of the OIF makes sense if one maintains the principle that economic francophonie is a priority. There is nevertheless a big jump between what the OIF is today and what it must become if it were to function like the European Union. This francophone economic union does not seem all that realistic to me in the foreseeable future.

Interview by Christelle Marot