How Qatar Became a Francophone Country
By: Sabah Ayoub
Published Thursday, November 8, 2012
There was a time when most French couldn’t place Qatar on a map. Now, Qatar – a small Gulf state with marginal ties to French culture – is a member of an international Francophone organization. Some have raised eyebrows at Qatar’s new Francophone identity since it has just expelled the director of a secular French lycée from its borders.
At the beginning of 2010, a Qatari prince decided to renovate a 17th century Parisian hotel he had recently purchased. However, after a few months of work, an organization that protects French heritage took Qatar to court to stop the project.
It turns out that the Qatari prince wanted to make radical changes to the historic building, such as constructing a car elevator from the parking garage directly to the rooms. The renovation plan also intended to remove an 18th century heater and replace it with modern bathroom facilities.
The renovation was not completely stopped, but the French Ministry of Culture, a heritage preservation group, and the courts came to an agreement with the prince to temper his ambitious renovation plans. Yet in the end, official French instructions dictated that the prince’s project be accommodated.
This is but a small example of what is happening today between Qatar and the French educational mission that was sent to the small Gulf state to run the new lycée (French school) in Doha. Tensions between the French administrators and their Qatari counterparts have mounted as local authorities pressed for changes in the curriculum and its principles, which have been in place since 1902.
The school – Lycée Voltaire – was opened in 2008 by then president Nicolas Sarkozy, under the auspices of Mission Laïque Française (MLF), a non-profit organization that establishes and runs French schools abroad in coordination with the Ministry of Education.
At the time, the French agreed – with the blessings of Sarkozy – to Qatari conditions that the school be run by administrators from both countries, with a Qatari appointed as president of the school’s administrative council. However, after a few years – when the student body had reached 700 pupils – the Qataris began interfering in the school curriculum, and in such a way that conflicts with the identity and mission of the MLF.
In 2011, for example, trouble started with the removal of a history book used in certain grade levels “due to it containing a chapter on Christianity in the Middle Ages,” according to Qatari officials.
More recently, the Arabic language textbook used in all classes was pulled and replaced with a book that teaches both Arabic and Islam together. When French teachers and school officials complained to their education ministry, the latter decided to relieve the French director, Frank Chouinard, of his duties.
The French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur confirmed that the MLF will be leaving the emirate at the end of next month. Le Figaro added, “Financial complications between the Qatari and the French sides led Qatar to terminate MLF’s financial and administrative authority a month ago.”
For its part, the French embassy in Qatar released a statement on Tuesday, stating, “The director of Lycée Voltaire has left his post as director after a dispute with the Qatari side of the administration and will be departing from the emirate soon.”
The statement continued, “The school will continue its operations in Doha, with the support of France, in cooperation with Qatari officials.”
The Lycée Voltaire affair has come at a time of mounting controversy in France about French-Qatari relations as a whole, especially after the oil-rich emirate was inducted into France’s international cultural organization, the International Organization of the Francophonie (IOF).
Buying a Francophone Identity
“Forty years ago, Qatar was nothing more than a pile of sand with a little oil in the eyes of the French,” a diplomat recalled in an interview with Le Point magazine. “Five years ago, most of the French did not even know where Qatar is located on a map,” another said.
Many people in France – who are not benefitting financially from Qatar’s largesse – realize that the rich emirate’s money-fueled invasion of their country will inevitably have some sort of negative impact on their republic.
Qatar today is one of the largest investors in France, buying up significant shares in a wide variety of sectors, including the media, sports, communication, energy, and luxury brands. It has even bought itself a seat in the IOF.
Qatar became a Francophone country with a blink of an eye. Without fulfilling any of the conditions to become part of the organization, the IOF gladly obliged the emir’s request and officially inducted Qatar as a full “member-state” last month.
This caused quite an uproar within the IOF and the French media, especially in light of the fact that Qatar was immediately accepted as member-state, without having to go through the “observer” stage that many of the new inductees had to go through.
Some news sources reported that Qatar “created a pressure group within the IOF – particularly among some African countries – to support its membership bid.” Meanwhile, frustrated IOF officials pointed out that Qatar was not even a Francophone country to begin with to deserve directly becoming a member-state.
But a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry begged to differ. “There are fundamental reasons for including Qatar in the IOF,” the spokesperson said, such as Doha’s “inclusion of the French language into its official school curriculum at the beginning of this year, in addition to launching a French-speaking radio station.”
Some French pundits tied the two controversies together, with one commentator summing up the whole affair as follows: “Qatar expels a secular French educational mission from the country and reserves a seat in the IOF with support from some African countries, where [Qatar] is establishing religious schools that take the place of French ones.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.