BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Lebanon, a former French mandate country, is a good illustration of how the French and English languages don't have to be in competition. In this tiny country of no more than 3.5 million people, French is still taught as a second language in two-thirds of its schools. But English is also on the rise.
"The issue today is cultural diversity because during the 20th century some 420 languages died and no one heard about them any more," said Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghassan Salame.
Lebanon, which gained its independence from France in 1943, is hosting the 9th Francophone summit on Friday with the participation of most of the 55 French-speaking countries that make up its membership.
"Lebanon is a country of two cultures and three languages," said Walid Arbid, a political analyst. "The French language should preserve itself but is not in competition with the English language which has become universal."
These days it is common to hear Lebanese mix Arabic, French and English words in their business and social conversations.
Restaurants, shops and other institutions may have sophisticated French names such as "Le Rabelais" and "Eau de Vie" or striking English ones such as "Liquid" or "The Fox."
According to Salame, Lebanese have always been multilingual and are used to using various languages rather than just one.
But the destructive 1975-90 civil war, Salame said, had sadly affected their linguistic skills.
French is no longer widely spoken in a proper way but remains "la langue du salon" (the languages for polished conversation) for the country's elite.
"French is still a proof of refinement and a synonym for luxury," said Rashid, a businessman in his 40s. "During my childhood, the great majority of schools in Lebanon were French-teaching institutions," said Rashid who believes this is not the case now.
However, a recent report counted 42,000 Lebanese students enrolled in 26 French-teaching institutions. Lebanese still passionately read French books.
Nearly a quarter of a century of direct French rule has left its impact on all aspects of Lebanese life. But there has also been a U.S. presence for many years.
The French language was first adopted in a Lebanese school in 1834, but American missionaries, headed by Daniel Bliss, founded the Syrian Protestant College in 1866. The college later became the American University of Beirut, that many consider the most prestigious academic institution in the Middle East and from which dozens of well-known Arab politicians and leaders graduated.
French which flourished in Lebanese Christian areas seems to be shifting to another community: Lebanese Muslim Shiites who emigrated to former French colonies in Africa and then began returning to their homeland because of spreading conflicts in that continent.
As Salame sees it, French "got out of the Christian ghetto to sneak into and take root in other Lebanese areas."
Olivier Benferhat, marketing manager for a French company, has been based in Beirut for two years now. He says he still has difficulties in adapting to Lebanon because of cultural differences.
"Despite the changes, Lebanon remains a Francophone country with all these placards and signs in French," Benferhat said. "But its population is less and less so. Only a few still speak French fluently."
French, he said, is being taught but not used while all business correspondence and documentation is done in English, even at his company.
Contrary to his expectations, Benferhat said the image of the French people in Lebanon was changing. He believes that the Lebanese were less and less attached to France.
To analyst Arbid, France was trying to "wipe out the black traces of its colonialist policies" during the past century.
France until recently was seen by the Lebanese Christians as their "gentle mother," but is now open to all Lebanese sects and groups.
"France is dealing with Lebanon as a cultural partner and possibly later as an economic one," Arbid said. "Also the Arabs feel that France is showing more understanding of their cause and problems. It knows that its interests are more with the Arabs and Muslims because of their oil resources."
Undoubtedly, it is cultural diversity that made Lebanon an open society in a mostly conservative Arab region.