The Geneva-based OIF (Organization Internationale de Francophonie) is disturbed by the prevalence of the English language over French, the historic language of diplomacy, whether in UN documents, meetings or in the corridors of the UN’s European headquarters at the Palais des Nations. This despite the fact the UN’s European headquarters are located in a French-speaking city, the city of Rousseau and Voltaire, not to mention that the UN has six official languages.

 The OIF noted that in a recent seminar on multilingualism at the UN General Assembly, it was revealed that reports concerning human rights in Cote d’Ivoire and Tunisia were only available in EnglishA recent UN survey reported that 98% of UN personnel in Geneva used English on the job while 87% said they also used French.  In 2010, 73.5% of UN documents were submitted in English as the original text, while only 14.9% received the same treatment in French.

Senegalese journalist Gorgui Wade Ndoye, who was appointed UN observer for the OIF, talked to UN Information Director Corinne Momal-Vanian about the problem.  She agreed that while “some inequalities persist between the use of English and French, the two working languages of the secretariat”, she said the trend is not “inevitable.”

Perhaps not but those attending conferences or seminars in recent years have noticed that, apart from major events, often the only simultaneous translation available is from the original language into English. For Francophone journalists like Ndoye this is especially annoying given the fact that the number of Anglo-Saxon journalists working at the Palais des Nations has steadily dwindled since the end of the Cold war.

Momal-Vanian said the UN is making “real efforts” to address and implement multilingualism, which after all, is a central pillar of the UN but said the problem is largely due to budgetary constraints.

The UN General Assembly first took up the issue of multilingualism in 1995 through the work of GAF (Groupe des Ambassadeurs Francophones). Since that date, the Assembly has passed resolutions, on a bi-annual basis, to promote all six official UN languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese).