20 February 2018

Liberian Historian Weighs in On President Weah's French-Speaking Talk in Senegal

Photo: Le Soleil
President George Weah and President Macky Sall of Senegal.

Monrovia — When Liberian President George Manneh Weah and French President Emmanuel Macron sit for a tete-a-tete at the Elysee Wednesday, the much-heralded official visit is expected to focus on the challenges facing Liberia, in particular economic growth and youth employment.

"I think the language thing is not confined to Liberia but rather a matter of international practice. Heads of State usually use their national (Swahili for Tanzania, for example) or official (English for Tanzania, for example).

The late Emperor Hailee Selassie of Ethiopia often spoke in Amharic and carried with him an official translator. Presidents Tubman and Tolbert traveled with Albert Juste as official translator.

Now, if the Head of State is conversant with a foreign language, he/she might use it with counterpart in private conversations. French President Macron is known to be conversant with English, but always uses his national/official French in official circumstances" - Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, Retired; Associate, Center for Policy Studies (CERPS), Liberia, American University Chattanooga, Tennesse

But the days leading to Paris have been eclipsed by a controversy of another kind, with many Liberians raising concerns about Mr. Weah's choice of language when visiting overseas.

The visit to Paris will mark the first trip of Mr. Weah as President to the scene where he launched his professional football career, first with A.S. Monaco, then Paris-Saint-Germaine and Olympique Marseille.

Mr. Weah went on to become the first African Ballon d'or, the European best and the World Best Footballer of the year. Macron has planned a working lunch for the Liberian President, followed by a press point.

The French-speaking controversy was sparked last week when Mr. Weah addressed a news conference during his visit to Dakar, Senegal in French instead of English.

Several threads on social media have been inundated with exchanges - on either side of the aisle, weighing on the saga and whether the Liberian President was right or wrong to address a post-meeting with a foreign President in a foreign language other than the universal language leaders are expected to speak on the global stage.

Macron Known for Being Conversant in English

Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, a historian and a former professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee and currently an associate at the Center for Policy Studies (CERPS), Liberia, American University told FrontPageAfrica Monday, that the issue is not confined to Liberia alone.

"I think the language thing is not confined to Liberia but rather a matter of international practice. Heads of State usually use their national (Swahili for Tanzania, for example) or official (English for Tanzania, for example)."

Dr. Dunn explained that the late Emperor Haille Selassie of Ethiopia often spoke in Amharic, an Afroasiatic language of the Semitic branch, spoken as a mother tongue by the Amhara, and other populations residing in major cities and towns of Ethiopia and carried with him an official translator.

Said Dr. Dunn: "Presidents Tubman and Tolbert traveled with Albert Juste as official translator.

Now, if the Head of State is conversant with a foreign language, he/she might use it with counterpart in private conversations. French President Macron is known to be conversant with English, but always uses his national/official French in official circumstances."

A former Minister of Foreign Affairs who preferred anonymity agrees: "Diplomatically, the expectation is that the President speaks the accepted language.

Even if you speak the President chooses to speak in a foreign language, he must intersperse and then go back to his/her own language. But it is expected that they will speak the accepted language of their country."

A senior official at the ministry who also preferred anonymity because he has not been confirmed by the Senate said, while there is no protocol regarding what language the President can speak when he travels overseas, it is the norm he speaks in a language that his people can understand.

"The problem is the President has to build relationship with the government and people of the host nation and speaking French is an advantage."

The last two times former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf visited France, interpreter was used to translate.

Businessman Henrique Caine, writing on a Facebook thread Monday argued that in public appearances, the national language of home country (he or she may interject a few words in host country language to bond with local audiences and make nice), but overall, speech should be in home country's official language.

"That is established protocol for a whole number of reasons and some are pretty obvious. Neither will the host speak the language of the guest either. In private meetings and dinner table talk, that rule won't apply.

"He/she may speak the language of the host if known or the host may speak the language of the guest. Obviously if they can avoid an interpreter hoovering over the dinner table-- all the better."

Liberia, France Partnership

Whether he speaks in English or French during his visit at the Elysee Wednesday, Mr. Weah will be looking to exploit an opportunity to engage a young French President who is keen on starting a partnership with a new generation of heads of state like Weah, through a policy focused on youth and investment.

The agenda will come as a welcome relief for Mr. Weah who has pledged to connect Liberia through a coastal highway and construct a military hospital in the next six years.

At the Elysee, the role of sport as a factor of development will be at the heart of these exchanges and will likely offer Macron a chance to implement an initiative he announced in his speech in Ouagadougou last November.

Mr. Weah's decision to make the French-speaking western nation his priority over the traditional stepfather, the United States of America has been greeted with some caution although it could offer a rare opportunity for Liberia to take advantage of a young French President looking to foster a new connection with Africa.

In his speech in Ouagadougou last November, Macron averred: "Given our shared history - for a French President to come and speak about Africa this way, and I would never pretend to express the complexity and diversity of a continent made up of 54 countries.

First because it would be terribly arrogant to attempt to explain that there is absolute unity and complete uniformity; 54 countries, each with its own history, with even more ethnicities and languages, with relationships that are not the same with regard to France and a past very often full of very different traumas."

Macron's attempt to breakaway from the traditional aid to only would be key to how the visiting Liberian President approaches his host. "I do not want to act here as a historian in the university that has taken the name of one of Africa's greatest historians.

I want to speak here in this country of upstanding men and women because I know that we are not just talking to Burkina Faso, nor just to West Africa or even just to French-speaking Africa; because such barriers that long shaped our perceptions, our political considerations, and our analyses are no longer the barriers of today's Africa, your Africa."

Macron has put himself on record for slamming what he sees as artificial barriers between a French-speaking Africa and an English-speaking Africa, between a North Africa and a sub-Saharan Africa, between a French-speaking Africa and a Portuguese-speaking Africa.

"All these barriers are artificial, they merely, to a certain extent, impose upon us a past that we must move on from, perceptions that were, and constructions that must evolve."

More on This

Weah Lobbies Outside for Support

President George Manneh Weah is expected to make his second presidential trip outside of Liberia Thursday, 15 February… Read more »

See What Everyone is Watching

Copyright © 2018 FrontPageAfrica. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 600 reports a day from more than 140 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.