Beirut book fair reflects enduring French influence
BEIRUT - With more than 80,000 visitors over ten days, Beirut’s Francophone Book Fair, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, is among Lebanon’s biggest cultural events and evidence of its close links to France, its former colonial power.
“It is not by pure chance that this (major) fair has been taking place in Lebanon despite the difficulties. In fact, the French language, with Arabic, is at the core of the identity of this country, its diversity and values,” said French Ambassador to Lebanon Bruno Foucher in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“That is why it is essential to preserve French (teaching), which also cements the strong and old links between our two peoples.”
While designed to promote books and cultural diversity, the fair is also aimed at countering fanaticism and sectarian intolerance, Foucher said. “It is a weapon (that defends) common values, freedom and opening up to the other,” he said.
With 43 educational establishments for more than 60,000 students, Lebanon has the world’s biggest network adhering to French teaching programmes outside of France, Foucher said.
“Francophone teaching in Lebanon is the oldest form of exchange between our two countries, which we hope to expand further,” he said, “Our objective -- and it is also the wish of the president of the republic (Emmanuel Macron) -- [is] to double the number of students enrolled in French-teaching schools by 2025.”
“France is also the main destination for Lebanese students seeking higher education abroad. Choosing Lebanon to host the regional francophone centre seemed to be evident,” Foucher added.
At the Francophone Summit last month in Armenia, the organisation adopted Beirut for the headquarters of its Middle East regional office. The move was warmly welcomed by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who stated: "Languages are the link between different cultures and identities and the francophonie aims not only at making the French language familiar within communities but [at] deepening dialogue between civilisations and bringing people closer together.”
In a globalised world where the English language is omnipresent, French appears to have retreated even in former French colonies, Foucher said.
“In Lebanon, there is also a risk of decline of French. However, we must demonstrate to the Lebanese youth that French is a useful language and can open up doors on the professional level,” he added. “It is an important heritage that is in our hands to revive and regenerate. It is also among the priorities of the French president, who will be visiting Lebanon in the spring and signing a road map for (reinforcing) the francophonie.”
The Beirut Francophone Book Fair is hosting some 60 Lebanese and French publishing houses and literary centres and 180 authors are scheduled to visit the fair to sign their latest books. Among the visiting authors are French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, French-Lebanese writer Venus Khoury-Ghata, French authors Katherine Pancol and Veronique Olmi and Belgian journalist Christine Ockrent.
A new attraction this year at the fair is a stand for digital culture, where a selection of the best start-ups by Lebanese innovators will be exposed.
The fair will pick the “Goncourt Choice of the Orient,” a regional prize awarded by students from Middle East universities to a literary francophone work among the books selected by the Goncourt Academy. This year, students at 33 universities from 11 countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iraq, Sudan, as well as Palestinian territories, will be represented on the jury.
The fair includes a collective stand for Arabic book publishers engaged in translating French books to Arabic and vice versa. Encouraging the two-way translation has been a policy of the francophone event for several years.
“Francophonie does not mean restriction to one language only,” Foucher said. “For that reason, Arabic publishers will be present again this year. We hope the fair will become more multilingual in the future.”
The fair has proven to be a great success thanks to the strong commitment of Lebanese publishers, authors and innovators in favour of the francophone culture, Foucher said.
“Speaking French is not outdated but it is a plus and a bonus. Lebanon has been an indispensable bridge for the francophone culture reaching out to the Arab world. It is a bridge that we are building together,” the French envoy added.