At the Universal Congress of Esperanto

Harry Stopes

On 13 July 1906, Benoît Damien, the dean of the science faculty at Lille University, wrote to the president of the Lille Chamber of Commerce, Edmond Faucheur. Damien was a member of the Esperanto Industrial and Commercial Society of France, and had probably been to the first Universal Congress of Esperanto in Boulogne-Sur-Mer the year before. Local writers and politicians had been describing Lille as a ‘crossroads’ city between Germany, France, Belgium and England since at least the 1870s. With an eye to its commercial future, the municipality offered German and English classes in its schools. Damien was convinced that Lille should adopt Esperanto.

‘What more could be desired by intellectuals, industrialists and merchants than to see the free circulation of ideas, products and merchandise on a market which, having been European, has become global?’ he wrote. ‘So, more than any other, the city of Lille, capital of an industrial region, open to all ideas of progress, must show that it is not neutral in the question of international relations and in their improvement by Esperanto.’ He wanted the Chamber of Commerce to subsidise classes in ‘commercial Esperanto’, to print an annual Esperanto catalogue of local manufactured goods, and to develop a Esperanto section in its library. Faucheur politely declined.

Last week the 100th Universal Congress of Esperanto was held in Lille. The public programme included a traditional dance workshop in the Place du Théâtre, an ecumenical service in the Eglise Saint-Maurice and concerts by Esperanto singers. There were also introductory lessons in Esperanto, and an international football match between Esperanto and Western Sahara. (The match was abandoned at half-time with Western Sahara 4-0 up.)

I went to see the singer JoMo (Jean-Marc Leclerq) play at the Gare Saint-Sauveur, a former goods yard on the south eastern edge of the city centre. Leclerq, who is from Toulouse, performs in Esperanto and Occitan. One language is old and local, the other new and international, but the combination is less surprising than it might at first seem: a desire to escape the dominance of Anglo-Saxon capital can lead to both localism and globalism, as it has for José Bové.

Lille was the European Capital of Culture in 2004, and it has carried on pushing both its European and its cultural credentials in a series of biennial festivals known as Lille 3000. The Lille Métropole, according to a recent report, ‘sees cultural dynamism as a vector of social inclusion, community harmony’ and, above all, ‘an asset for urban and economic development’. The TGV line from Paris to Brussels was completed in 1993. The Gare de Lille Europe opened the following year, part of a Rem Koolhaas masterplan of a large portion of the eastern edge of the city centre, renamed Euralille. Working-class areas such as Wazemmes and Moulins are being redeveloped too. La Brique, a leftist local newspaper, recently depicted the mayor as a Godzilla figure, stomping through the city in a pair of Euralille office tower boots.

‘Our city is ceasing to be industrial,’ Fernand Danchin, a municipal councillor, said:

Our old Lillois must remember the time when one could not go twenty steps in Lille without encountering a factory; it’s not like that today. Industry is moving to the surrounding communes and Lille will become a city of literature, science and art. Our centre of Lille will be the city distinguished by excellence, but preserving that spirit and tradition which one calls local colour.

He was speaking in 1905.


  • 6 August 2015 at 12:15am
    antant says:
    My father spoke, read and wrote 7 languages in addition to being a fully fluent proponent of Esperanto. With the exception of an ancient friend of his who had been his Russian tutor, my father was the only Esperanto speaker I ever met. Philosophically, I agree with the concept, but it would seem that English has become our lingua franca--and Esperanto has become an historic linguistic footnote.

  • 6 August 2015 at 11:28am
    Bill Chapman says:
    Sorry, antant. You are underestimating Esperanto. Esperanto hasn't yet gained the recognition it deserves, but, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In 128 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with probably a couple of million speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn't taken the world by storm - yet - but it's slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years. About 80,000 people have signed on for the new (beta) Duolingo Esperanto course in its first few weeks.

    Far from being "an historic linguistic footnote", there is a very lively community of Esperanto speakersa. I have found Esperanto of a lot of use when travelling on my own, to get my bearings within a country. Esperanto may not be perfect, but I've used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job, serving as a unique common language on my travels in, for example, Armenia and Bulgaria.