Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Forty-four authors sign French world literature manifesto

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PARIS

With French long engaged in a losing battle against English around the world, a new way of fighting back has been proposed by a multinational group of authors who write in French: uncouple the language from France and turn French literature into "world literature" written in French.

For guardians of the language of Moliere, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, this is tantamount to subversion.

But the 44 signatories of a manifesto published in Le Monde this month are in a rebellious mood. They assert that it is time for the French to stop looking down on francophone authors, as foreigners writing in French are known, because these very novelists -- many from former French colonies -- hold the key to energizing French literature.

For this, they say, French must be freed from "its exclusive pact" with France.

And, as an example worth following, they point to how literature in English has been enriched by Commonwealth and other non-British writers, among them V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy, Peter Carey and Kiran Desai.

Still, the timing of this new campaign in not accidental.

Last fall, to the astonishment of France's literary establishment, foreign-born writers won five of the country's seven major book awards, with the coveted Goncourt going to Les Bienveillantes by the New York-born novelist Jonathan Littell, who also won the Academie Francaise's prize. Other winners were Alain Mabanckou from the Republic of the Congo, Nancy Huston from Canada and Leonora Miano from Cameroon.

"My novels, written in French and published by Gallimard, are placed in bookshops in the Vietnamese literature section," said Anna Moi, a Vietnamese-born writer who signed the manifesto.

In lobbying for change, these writers say that the first step should be the elimination of the very category of francophone writers.

"The emergence of world literature in French is the death certificate of francophonie," the manifesto states, referring to the traditionally used description of foreign-born speakers of French. "No one speaks francophone, no one writes francophone. Francophonie is the light of a dead star."

Conservative UMP French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made a point in wrapping himself in the French flag, also felt a need to respond.

"Francophonie is not dead," he declared in an article in Le Figaro, adding optimistically that the French language's prestige is "intact" and that its "retreat" in the face of English is not inevitable.

What is clear is that francophonie has now become a politically charged concept, one that politicians like Sarkozy applaud as a tool for promoting French.

The problem is that many of foreign-born French writers do not feel loved in France today. And with several preferring to teach in the US, Sarkozy has warned, with no small alarm, that the future of francophonie may lie in the Anglo-Saxon world.

"Francophonie saved by America!" he exclaimed. "Now, that would be too much."

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