Teaching French implies disseminating culture, history, and philosophy that stemmed from the idea of France as a cultural nation and one of the most democratic and social nations in modern history. Tenets such as the French Revolution, the end of the Monarchy, la Commune de Paris, the "Declaration of human rights" - are long revered and admired worldwide by many democratic societies. As an educator, I find the contribution to equality, fairness, brotherhood, and liberty - engrained in the French enlightenment – genuinely inspiring. However, there is another side to France being a colonial power that is not revealed or part of our discourse. France was one of the most ambitious powers during the 19th century. Hence the topic of colonialism is often avoided in our French curriculum. Historically, France was the second greatest colonizer after Great Britain. It had numerous settlements and colonies in Africa, Asia, North America, the Caribbean, and South America. France left a legacy in these countries even after their wars for independence: The French language and culture. Yet, when we think of French as a language, we think of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and not Algeria, Chad, Congo, Senegal, Ivory Coast, etc. This discrepancy makes us question the inclusiveness of all French-speaking countries as part of the linguistic and cultural legacy. Still, it reveals double standards in determining what constitutes the French language, art, and culture.4
Almost 80 years after WWII and the Algerian Independence Revolution, France has contributed to promoting democracies in the former colonies. Scholars of colonialism and post-colonialism studies argue that France’s presence and politics in the former colonies is none other than neo-colonialism. 5 At home, a cursory evaluation of French politics shows little involvement of minority groups within the politics of the modern French nation. Nowadays, France remains a key factor in world politics and International Relations; and its spheres of influence.6 France has a tremendous economic and military influence in Africa, which has raised concerns among African intellectuals.7 More so, France remains a cradle of cultural and linguistic hegemony in the African continent, despite its social fabric changes in the last two hundred years.8 France 24, a public news channel, gives a daily view of France’s international interests. More than fifty percent of the news comes from Africa and mainly former French colonies struggling with political turmoil, and ethnic conflicts within their countries. It often shows a French military presence – perhaps through international missions, or UN appointees.
France 24 includes some diversity within the country in its news reporting, depicting African artists and performers. Yet, the French culture remains the dominant culture, with little to offer in diversity. For years now, France has diffused and promulgated through Francophonie the dominant linguistic themes, culture, literature, and other topics centered mainly on French civilization. Colonial France is inexistent in this diffusion of new and old ideas. The overarching curriculum for middle and high school features thematic units depicting life, customs, and lifestyle in the metropolis. The former colonies, once the periphery, do not exist or are seldom reflected in themes and lessons. Inherently, the former colonies are only introduced as French-speaking countries, but the various dialects and rich traditions, art, and cultures are lacking in our curriculum.9 My students understand the impact that bias curriculum has on learning. French is not taught as a language only. After all, teachers of foreign languages promote culture, art, tradition, history, food and even promulgate globalist ideas in their teaching of language. Teachers usually have to research these countries on their own. Not only that, but the textbooks overlook these countries by giving more room to other European French-speaking countries such as Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland, and also Canada. The French-speaking African countries and their respective cultures have always been left in the shadows.10 In addition, if black students and characters were featured in French books, they were displaced and transplanted into the metropolis rather than being in their countries of origin. There are a few underlying assumptions in the narrative that teachers take for granted. Such rhetoric has to do with the history of colonialism. The narrative and the counter narrative exist just as in other subjects, and if looked at it from the lenses of social justice it is clear that the curriculum must go through the process of decolonization:
France played a role in civilizing the African countries by spreading ideas of human rights and democracy.
The assimilation turned the African people into dignified black Frenchmen and women.
Some races are superior and others inferior, and it is the duty of the superior race to act as a change agent and civilize the most inferior ones.
On the other hand, the counter-narrative is quite lacking from our discourse in French teaching:
France colonized Africa as an imperialist power seeking a cheap labor market, human and natural resources.
Universalism and colonialism is an oxymoron. One cannot colonize people to instill human rights and values. Colonization defeats that purpose.
Assimilation brings to the extinction of cultures, ideas, and entire civilizations. It deprives people of self-expression in art, culture, language, politics, and depletes creativity.