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Agreement on the use of French at London Games; deal to be signed in Quebec City

03/19/2012 04:51 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT
PARIS - An agreement on the use of French at the upcoming Summer Olympics in London is expected to be signed in Quebec City in May.

Former governor general Michaelle Jean tells The Canadian Press the deal between the London Olympic Committee and International Organization of la Francophonie will be inked on May 25 in Quebec City.

Jean has been negotiating on behalf of la Francophonie and says the negotiations over the use of French have been "complicated" and "difficult." But she says she's confident a deal will be completed by then.

"It certainly wasn't easy, it was quite difficult," Jean said in a telephone interview from London.

Jean is the main representative of the Francophonie at the Games. Her role is to assure that French has its place in London, as laid out in the Olympic charter.

That charter states that French and English are entrenched as the two official languages of the Games. It was Pierre de Coubertin of France who founded the modern Olympics.

But Jean says the idea that the Games are bilingual hasn't been easily understood — or accepted — in England.

"They say London is a cosmopolitan city and that English is an international language, so why use French?" Jean said.

Figuring out how much prominence to give the French language at the Olympics has been a headache for organizers over the years.

For the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, organizers had attempted to cut costs by declining to translate all English material into French, forcing the federal government to kick in an additional $7.7 million to ensure bilingual communication.

The role of French at the opening ceremony was also an issue. Organizers were raked over the coals in Quebec for not including enough French during the show, which had largely been funded by taxpayers.

But the Vancouver Olympics were held up as a gold standard by the Francophonie, the association of French-speaking countries, which dismissed the blow-up over the opening ceremonies as a political issue.

Use of French at official Olympic events and the opening ceremonies has been assured.

But it's negotiations over the use of French during day-to-day Olympic life that have been "far more complicated to negotiate."

"We're on a road that quickly becomes political," Jean noted. The organizers fear that the many cultural communities in London will demand the same thing as francophones.

Jean says another part of the resistance is fuelled by organizers' "incredible fear of the tabloids." She says the presence of francophobia in the media and its impact on public opinion can be catastrophic.

The London tabloids have scoffed at the idea of bilingual Games paid for by British taxpayers. One paper described a "battle" between the Francophonie and organizers, with the French now demanding "that their language be treated on equal footing as English at the Olympic Games in London."

"A determined group of Francophones are insisting that every sign, announcement and leaflet at the landmark event should be published in French," wrote the Daily Mail on Saturday. Even the venerable Times of London treated the story with an ironic touch, proposing signs in French like "Paula, the toilets are here."

The agreement is to be signed at an event in Quebec City, SportAccord, where more than 1,500 delegates from different sports federations and the Olympic movement are expected to attend.

- With files from Stephanie Levitz in Ottawa

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