C ambodia? Cambodge? Jason Barber reports that "language is a weapon" in
the squabble to dominate the Kingdom's second tongue.
"YOU have come at
the right time - they are about to burn the French," a Frenchwoman greeted a
visitor to Phnom Penh's Institute of Technology this month.
straw effigy bearing a sign saying "French" was being readied for symbolic
burning by a band of student protesters.
A match was put to the effigy;
within seconds "the French" were reduced to a pile of ash. Most of the
institute's French and Khmer staff ignored the spectacle, while a few watched
Despite the students' talk of holding mock trials of French
professors, the staff - and the institute's French funding - emerged unscathed
from the protests which disrupted classes for several weeks.
demonstrators' demands to be taught in English, not French, highlighted the
battle of the languages in Cambodia.
Francophonie (the French-speaking
community) efforts to promote their language, foreign aid and the pursuit of
influence and profit in Cambodia are all intertwined.
Language, says one
Phnom Penh Frenchman who has worked closely with French aid projects, can be "a
The man, who wanted neither himself nor his job identified, says
the French government's aim in Cambodia is the same as any country's - to gain
"Language is a weapon, money is another. If you want to have
influence, you have to attract people.
"In that sense, the French
language may be a means to attract people. If Cambodians learn French, maybe
they can go to France to study, and so on."
He believes the French
government - unlike francophonie agencies - considers the language "is a means,
not the purpose".
Others, whom he describes as "professional lobbyists",
are eager to see language promoted as a way to further their business
There are simmering rivalries, for instance, over the future
of Cambodia's legal and accounting systems.
The French government funds
Phnom Penh's Faculty of Law school - where students are taught in French - while
the United States also funds law training at the Faculty of
"Personally, I don't think that is good. Cambodia does not need
two institutions," says the Frenchman.
"If an American lawyer comes here,
and if Cambodia adopts his law system, it means money and a job for Americans.
It's the same with the French - the language may be used as a weapon by each
Promoting the French language abroad is big business. Phnom
Penh's Institute of Technology is getting $7 million in French aid - described
as "peanuts" by one involved with the project - out of a world budget of tens of
millions of dollars.
The key players are the French government and
international francophonie agencies such as AUPELF-UREF, an association of 350
universities in French-speaking countries.
AUPELF, which made its debut
in Cambodia in 1993 when it took over the running of the Institute of
Technology, is stepping up its activities with the recent opening of an office
Its latest move was to help establish a new French language
newspaper, Cambodge Soir (Cambodian Evening).
The newspaper was initiated
by AUPELF general-manager Michel Guillou, in Cambodia in January to open the new
Guillou, keen to start a daily French language newspaper,
approached French journalists in Phnom Penh. Among them were Alain Gascuel, who
publishes the fortnightly New Cambodia in English and French, and Marc Victor,
of the monthly Le Mekong.
"This man Guillou came and said 'I have money,
I want to create a daily'," says Gascuel.
"I said no. Marc Victor said
no. Both of us, without consultation, said: 'No way, not a daily. If you have
money, try something else'."
Gascuel's view was that there were not
enough readers for a daily paper, but Guillou was insistent.
eventually agreed to start a new paper, says the first thing he told Guillou was
"we have to study the market".
Victor says Le Mekong - which receives
$30,000 a year from France's Ministry of Culture - had been wanting to start a
weekly sister publication.
AUPELF preferred a daily one, so finally they
compromised - Le Mekong would start a tri-weekly publication. AUPELF gave
$40,000 and Cambodge Soir was born.
"Maybe it would be better to have a
weekly," says Victor. "But...[Cambodge Soir] is not expensive for us to publish,
it has four pages and we have only a few journalists - we said why
"Maybe one day we will try to publish it daily, but it will be very
difficult...it will depend on the advertising market."
speaks of working by candlelight to start up New Cambodia 15 months ago, is
unhappy about the new competition for that market.
"It's my money. It's
my work. I don't like people coming suddenly into the market with money from
"This guy Guillou comes here for a few days and says 'I want a
daily'...This paper was not started by the will of the people
Guillou ran into other critics in his time in Phnom Penh,
including French Ambassador Gildas Le Lidec, widely known to have exchanged
words with him at a social gathering.
According to one account, Le Lidec
described Guillou's francophonie efforts as "merde " (shit) and made
undiplomatic suggestions about the best place for them.
Le Lidec - who
last week declined to speak to the Post - also ran into controversy for a March
interview he gave to New Cambodia
He was quoted as saying: "Cambodia has
never been and isn't francophone. It would be a major mistake to drag Cambodians
by force into francophonie."
French was "something supplementary", useful
for Khmers who already spoke English, but he urged: "Let's be reasonable in our
There were sometimes "misunderstandings", he said, "maybe
because some operators acting in the name of francophonie are either brutal or
Le Lidec's comments reached France, where Culture
Minister Jacques Toubon - noted for drafting a law banning English words in
French advertisements - reacted angrily.
Toubon called for Le Lidec to be
reprimanded by the Foreign Ministry, which responded with an assurance that
French diplomats abroad were "committed to developing French language and
culture". A later statement proclaimed that the Ambassador had "all the
confidence" of France.
A month later, the Cambodian government was forced
to address the English-versus-French debate by the Institute of Technology
"I felt like I was being held hostage on one side by AUPELF and
by my own students on the other," says Minister of Education Tol Lah, who headed
negotiations to settle the dispute.
"AUPELF threatened to withdraw their
aid package, while the students were also complaining."
Tol Lah accepts
AUPELF's policy is to teach in French but he remains adamant that Cambodia's
universities "cannot be exclusive to France".
On his preference for
English or French, he says: "I know right now that English is the dominant
language in the region. I wish we could teach our children English right from
primary school, but that is just a dream - we don't have the teachers, the
His best hope, he says, is to see both English and French
taught in secondary schools.
Cambodia - along with Vietnam and Laos - is
unique in that its former colonization means many still speak French in a region
where English is the most-widely spoken foreign language.
Cambodia is at least a semi-francophone country. In 1993, it joined an assembly
- whose name translates to the Summit of Chiefs of State of Governments Sharing
French - made up of 49 countries where French is spoken to some
AUPELF - whose $32 million budget (in 1994) is funded by the
French, Belgian and Canadian governments and its university members - is an
agency of the assembly.
Christophe LaBorde, head of AUPELF's new
Cambodian office, cites Cambodia's decision to join the assembly as the reason
for francophonie projects.
"If a country joins...it means they want to
promote French in their country. If they don't want to promote French, they
Cambodia, he says, needs more French speakers to help build
relations within the French-speaking world.
"To speak French in Southeast
Asia, where a lot of countries speak English....it's something special,
something better than the other countries have."
But "we don't want
everybody to speak French," he adds, laughing.
AUPELF targets science and
technology students for French lessons, he says, to help them get greater
knowledge and opportunities in the world francophonie science
He would not reveal AUPELF's Cambodian budget. But as well as
the Institute of Technology, it funds materials and training for the Faculty of
Medicine and the teaching of science subjects in French at the University of
Phnom Penh and three high schools.
Minister of Education Tol Lah, in the
wake of events at the institute, has asked AUPELF to consider the high school
projects only an "experiment".
The French government, meanwhile, also
sponsors French language classes for secondary and university students, among a
host of other francophonie projects.
They include funding the Cultural
and Language Cooperation Center - which teaches French to some 10,000 children,
students, officials, professors, teachers and others - and two French language
television programs on TVK.
LaBorde believes Cambodian government
officials, many of whom speak French, accept that French and francophonie aid is
No.1 for "action and for volume of money" in the education field.
they don't have francophone policies, this action will go away, will go abroad,"
But he disputes that the flourishing francophonie of Cambodia is
aimed to exclude English.
"The best someone can do is to learn French and
English too. They will have a lot of opportunity for the future if they know the
two main languages.
"Francophones or French people working here don't
want to make war with the people who promote English courses."
Gascuel, of New Cambodia, says that, intended or not, there is a battle going
"This is more than a game. This is a fight. We have a number of small
fights, some are stupid, some are justified.
"But this is Cambodia, I
think we should be clever - the [aid] work is so huge, there is a piece for
Nobody, Gascuel says, is stupid enough to say that "Cambodia
should be French again", but nor should they discount the French.
the surrounding countries are English speaking, but you cannot suppress all that
is French here. It's part of the history and culture.
"It has to be
recognized that France has a place here, a reason to be here. For how much
longer? Well, it is up to us to remain useful."