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Linguistic sovereignty? (III)

Last Updated: 28 Oct 2020

In a first editorial we showed that linguistic territories did not generally coincide with political territories and that the relationship between language and politics was a complex one. To say that the influence of a language is directly linked to political power is true only to a certain extent.

In a second editorial, we tried to show that linguistic awareness is a new idea, closely linked to the communication society, and that there is no point in revisiting history with today's eyes. This is a scientific error and an eminently widespread mistake. But what is true, and in the end so seldom , is that the past remains rich in experience and lessons that we must try to apprehend objectively rather than through a retrospective and moralizing look. For example, we are quite capable of understanding the processes which led to the radical decline of most regional languages in France, and not only in France. It is therefore quite possible to determine under what conditions the same processes can be prevented from recurring in Africa with local and national languages. This is the subject of a recent book published by the OEP1.

Territorialisation, linguistic awareness, these are two essential dimensions of our subject, "linguistic sovereignty". For we have understood that we exist individually and collectively through language. It is difficult to assert the contrary. We speak of "language" in the singular, i.e. in the generic sense of the term. But nothing prevents us from using the plural. So we exist through language or through the languages we speak. It is through language or languages that we gain access to culture. And this is true for everyone, whether we are aware of it or not.

A third major dimension must be taken up. This is the relationship of domination which langages and culture cannot elude. But if we wish to have a chance of understanding something about them, we must first of all admit the ambivalence of domination. Before considering domination as an abomination, one must be aware of this ambivalence which is deeply rooted in the common language. If I say of Picasso that he dominated twentieth-century painting, I am not saying that he used all his strength to destroy his competitors and drained all the artistic creativity that surrounded him. It's a bit like a tree that grows higher than the others. It is creativity and creation that create domination. But it can take pathological forms, the ones we usually talk about, the ones that humiliate, oppress, destroy. The problem is that the same entities can be both at the same time in varying proportions. That’s where the difficulty lies. And it is not possible to think about sovereignty without this ambivalence in mind.

As regards sovereignty and independance, reality imposes modesty on us.

Let’s take Serge Halimi’s excellent editorial in the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique entitled « False independance ».In front of donald Trump at the >hite House, we can see the Serbian President Aleksander Vucic and the Kosovor Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti. To sum up, Donald Trump tells them :you small Europeans that you are, candidates for entry into the European Union, you are going to do as I say. Either you obey Washington DC, or I will cause your downfall. Of course, they obey and agree to transfer their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They are not the first to be treated like that and to react in the same way.

It is clear that the very notion of independence is a myth. Even Robinson Crusoe is not independent because he depends on nature. The general rule is interdependence, but when you have said that, you haven’t actually said anything. As François Perroux2 had observed and developed, what counts are the modalities of interdependence, and it is necessary to be able to define strong modalities of interdependence and weak modalities of interdependence. From then on, the subject begins to become interesting. Thus, strong modalities of interdependence are those that make you less dependent on your partners or competitors than they are on you. This key to reading, which concerns all areas, economic, technological, political, cultural and military, is the only one that allows you to understand globalisation and to have a strategic approach. And this is true whatever the environment, whether we are in a world where multilateralism reigns or in a world where the balance of power alone counts, as is the case today.

After half a century living in the background of the United States, Europe is beginning to emerge from daydreaming. It is concerned, for example, that all the personal data in the world and especially in Europe supposedly in the 'cloud' is not really in the cloud, but stored in huge pools of computers and hard disks and available to the US government if they need it. This almost absolute monopoly in the field of intelligence is obviously problematic and it has been decided to build up capabilities in this area. It's never too late to pull yourself together. Moreover, this concern is not completely new, and if we go back a little in the past, we can remember the Galileo programme of satellite radionavigation complementary to the American GPS system, but above all a competitor after having broken the American monopoly, and whose full development was brought to an end this year in the most perfect discretion.

But the question prior to that of the modalities of interdependence is that of what we want to do and why.

If we are not able to answer this question for the present as well as for the long term, it should come as no surprise that some small countries are trying to pick up the scraps of small-scale alliances with the powerful of the day.

Therefore the question is first of all one of will, and the linguistic question, however essential, comes next.

It is clear that if we see in the United States the future of the world and a universal model, the dies are cast. One can only join the Empire and integrate into it. This is not what history teaches us, nor a critical analysis of the world as it is and as it will be.

Above all, we must not think that the period opened, and hopefully soon closed by Donald Trump, changes the order of things in any way. Trump has only precipitated and caricatured a situation that had been taking hold for decades. Today, as many commentators have noted, the world is running out of leadership, and the United States has ceased to play that role, simply because it is no longer capable of doing so, and probably never has been. Emmanuel Todd already made this observation in an essay published in 2002, Après l'empire - Essai sur la décomposition du système américain3 , whose counterpoint reading of Zbigniew Brzezinski's Grand échiquier4 , published five years earlier, is extremely instructive.

Twenty years have gone by and what we can see is a considerable upheaval, beyond what could be imagined, of the great world balances.

When a country, which was described as the only "hyperpower", is the second biggest polluter on the planet after China, and by far the biggest polluter per inhabitant (more than twice as much as a Chinese person), it is clear that this country poses the greatest threats to the world.

When a country is the only one to find itself in a continuous situation of trade deficit over four decades, the debt is abysmal and puts it in the dependency of its creditors. Until Donald Trump declared a trade war on China, the United States' largest creditor was China. The US consumes far more than it produces. In 2000, the US trade deficit for the year was $450 billion, it will be $3.2 trillion in 2020. As China stopped recycling its dollars from its trade surpluses and savings to the US Treasury, Europe has now taken over with the German surpluses. The United States lives on credit and if it acted like a normal country, it could not maintain its standard of living for long.

But that's not all. It has been amply demonstrated that growing inequality has for decades deprived a majority of Americans of the benefits of growth. The American social system is totally unsuited to periods of crisis and lacks the resilience of European systems, which, although they have not escaped the development of inequalities produced by neo-liberal ideas, have undoubtedly limited their effects. One could add many features of American society that stand in sharp contrast to European societies (the death penalty, crime, prison population, eugenics, exacerbated religiosity, warlike adventures with no way out, a democracy that is turning into an oligarchy, etc.). And the American riches (the wide open spaces, the literature, the cinema, the research, the famous universities, the faith in the future, the hospitality, etc.) tend to appear as many lost islands in an ocean of uncontrollable drifts. One thing is certain: today, a gulf is widening between the United States and Europe.

When a country appears not only as the leading political, economic and military power, but as an absolute model for its way of life and its ideals of freedom and democracy, this cluster of converging factors produces a dream, i.e. an enormous cultural attraction.

Today, however, not only is the American dream at a standstill, but people are about to think that it has become a kind of anti-model.

The United States is today overwhelmed by global warming and is posing a major risk to humanity. After being the hotbed of the financial crisis of 2008, it has the ingredients for the next one. It is also clearly overwhelmed by the health crisis. The slogan "Make America great again" sounds today not as a re affirmation of American leadership (we dare not speak of "empire"), but as a manifestation of the anguish of a page being turned. It will be up to Donald Trump's successors to draw the consequences of half a century of mistakes: the return to a certain normality.
Europe in all this is facing itself.

It must first get out of its congenital ambiguity.

After two world wars that had brought it to its knees, it was first built in the shadow of the United States and on the negation of national entities. Despite General de Gaulle's strong call to order, Europe persevered in this direction, supported by liberal ideology, a barely concealed formulation of a desire for hegemony. Halfway through the United Kingdom's entry into what was then the European Communities, some governments, including France, had the happy idea of a declaration on European identity which was to be signed by all the members, including the new ones, the United Kingdom and Ireland, at the European summit in Copenhagen on 13 and 14 December 1973. It was a non-event. All the Europeanists from that period until today had only one idea in mind on the linguistic side: to impose English as the language of Europe.

It is time to ask the right questions again.

Unconsciously and discreetly, the countries of Europe have over the past decades accumulated a wealth of experience that is absolutely unheard of. Soon three quarters of a century of learning how to negotiate between European countries first at 6, then at 12 and finally at 28 and 27. 70 years spent reducing our misunderstandings, or our "incommunications" to use Dominique Wolton's happy term5 , to invent for themselves a shared future in a rapidly changing world, it is no small feat. And overcoming these "incommunications" owes nothing to English.

As much through 70 years of negotiations on all subjects as through turbulent histories over almost 2000 years, the European countries have acquired an incomparable experience and understanding of the world today.

It is remarkable that the term European culture is very rarely used and that European culture is the subject of very little research. Perhaps the fact that for centuries the European nations believed themselves to be at the centre of the world and that they competed against each other for the conquest of the world did not predispose them to the necessary distancing.

Times have changed and self-awareness has become essential.

In an interview with Jean-Claude Juncker published in the Letter of the Schuman Foundation, he states that "Europe is a world power without knowing it". This is good but a bit short. In fact Jean-Claude Juncker says other things that are just as important. In particular, he says: "When I began my community life, at the age of 28 as a young Minister of Employment, we were ten Member States, then came the Portuguese and the Spaniards. There was a club-like atmosphere at ministerial level, we knew everything about each other: family, children, grandparents. After the various enlargements, all that unravelled, the relationships between leaders became strained. Europe is, of course, made up of institutions, countries, governments, but also people... This intimate knowledge of the others got lost. Far from the Franco-German poem about friendship and the lessons learned, what do the Germans know about the French? What do the French know about the Germans? The only German who knew France well was Helmut Kohl. He knew everything about the Fourth Republic, Pierre Pflimlin, Edgar Faure, Canon Kir... There is a lack of love, not so much towards Europe, but between us. There is a lot of descriptive romanticism when it comes to talking about each other in the different Member States. People like to give the impression that it is a coherent whole, based on common rules, including the rule of law, but the knowledge we have of each other is underdeveloped. What I call a lack of love is a lack of interest. From a certain point on, Europe gave the impression that it was working, which led the peoples of Europe to lose interest in each other. So the mistrust that citizens have of their national governments, this growing gap between those who govern and those who are governed, palpable, observable in every Member State, how can you expect it not to exist and grow at the level of Europe!

Very curiously, this kind of reflection echoes what could be written at the beginning of the last century. Thus André Suarez in an remarkable outstanding and striking essay in 19326 wrote about Goethe :

"True Europe is agreement, not unison. Goethe holds for all the varieties and all the differences: the mind which interprets nature cannot give itself another rule or another judgement. Only in a harmony rich enough to contain and resolve dissonance can Europe be a Europe. But the tuning of a single sound, even at an infinite number of octaves, has no harmonic meaning. To make a Europe, you need France, Germany, England, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy and the rest. »

"In Goethe’s work, Europe is a mother to countless sons; through the poet's voice, she invites them to recognise themselves. Goethe opens their eyes; may they finally consent to become aware of each other; may they be ashamed to slander and hate each other. Goethe, a powerful German, did not want Europe to be German, nor France or China to become German. For Europe to be truly itself, Germany must be the most German and France the most French that they can be: minus evil here and there, minus contempt, violence and hatred. »

In a study on Nietzsche's European ideal, François Rigaux7 writes :

"In an era of already virulent nationalisms, which were to be exacerbated during the two world wars, Nietzsche denies what he considers to be a dangerous delirium, "the disease most hostile to culture, this national neurosis with which Europe is sick" (16). His ideal is European rather than international. There are many passages in his work where he proclaims himself European, where he calls on the peoples of Europe to recognise each other: "they will immediately form a power in Europe and, fortunately, a power between the peoples! Between the classes! Between the poor and the rich! Between the rulers and the ruled! Between the calmest and the most restless" (17). It is therefore not a union of states that Nietzsche calls for, but a coalition of individuals. »

These quotations have a very contemporary inspiration which the Europeans should today regain.

The founding fathers of the European Union and all those who succeeded them all worked in their own way for the rebirth of the European countries in a Europe destroyed and exhausted by the exacerbation of nationalism and the wars which followed.

Today, even if it may seem paradoxical, it is the rehabilitation and affirmation of the permanence of nations that must be worked on. Contrary to what has been drummed into our heads for decades by a liberal ideology, which had nothing particularly liberal about it, the market does not transcend the nations. The market is organised between natio ns. If nationalism is really an invention of the 19th century, nations have always existed and the term itself has existed since the earliest antiquity, even if its contours have sometimes lacked precision. In 1744, the philosopher Giambatista Vico published his major work Principles of a new science relating to the common nature of nations, asserting that science could not only be physical and mathematical, but should also show some interest in human societies. In the course of their history, the nations of Europe have gained so much experience and learned so much from each other that it is an absolute truism that Europe can only be built on the nations themselves. Moreover, Europe is not an end in itself, it is the result of the ability and necessity of European nations to think about their future and the future of the world. In other words, Europe is not the surpassing of nations, under the effect of a force external to it, but the result of the efforts of the European nations to surpass themselves.

Europe is indeed a union of nation-states which sovereignly decide to act together, because it is their destiny and their great wisdom to act that way. And the times in which we live are forcing the European countries to rethink themselves and to rethink Europe. No one can escape this imperative, and things can move forward very quickly, as the major advances made in recent months show. Europe, the nations of Europe can only move forward or fall apart.

In any reflection on Europe, the language issue is inescapable. Language and languages are among the most precious assets of the peoples. For, as the philosopher Michel Serres recalled some time before his death, "A country which loses its language loses its culture; a country which loses its culture loses its identity; a country which loses its identity no longer exists. This is the greatest catastrophe that can happen to it"8.

Linguistic evolutions are long-term evolutions, like the drift of continents, sometimes with tremors that no one foresaw. We are quite aware that Brexit will not fundamentally change linguistic situations. And that is not important. English will remain in human sight, among the international languages, the most widely used language in exchanges, but as it is not the only on, it poses no problem. On the other hand, at the European level, institutionally, the only languages which appeal to the citizens are the national languages. And these must not only remain the reference, but must be restored to their rights, rights that have been largely trampled underfoot over the last twenty years.

We are here in the realm of sovereign decisions.

We must learn each other's languages. This was the wish, so poorly applied, expressed in the European Cultural Convention of 1953.

The European symbolism must become clear again, and must respect the cultural and linguistic diversity, of which the treaties have made a fundamental principle, but a diversity which is too often contradicted by institutional practice to be credible.

Much needs to be done in this area. It is a major project that needs to be opened up, which may not have the same importance as economic issues, but which cannot be postponed any longer.

1Méthodes et pratiques des langues africaines : identification, analyses et perspectives, Julia Ndibnu Messina Ethe et Pierre Frath, Collection Plurilinguisme, OEP 2019

2« Indépendance » de la nation, « Indépendance » de l’économie nationale et interdépendance des nations, François Perroux, Aubier Montaigne, 1969.

3Après l’empire – Essai sur la décomposition du système américain, Emmanuel Todd, Gallimard, 2002.

4The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski, BasicBooks, trad. Le Grand échiquier, Bayard Editions, Pluriel, 1997.

5Vive l’incommunication, La victoire de l’Europe, Dominique Wolton, Editions François Bourin, 2020

6Goethe le grand européen, André Suarès, éditions Emile-Paul Frères, 1932

7« L'idéal européen de Nietzsche », dans AFRI, Volume XI, 2010, Centre Thucydide, Université Paris II-Assas, p. 55-67.

8Michel Serres - Défense et illustration de la langue française aujourd'hui, Le Pommier, 2018, p. 55