Outraged by English, Chirac storms out of summit
By Stephen Castle in Brussels
Friday, 24 March 2006
Under mounting political pressure at home, the French President, Jacques Chirac, yesterday stormed out of an EU summit in a fit of pique over a fellow Frenchman's decision to speak in English.
Already at the heart of a row over economic protectionism in Europe, M. Chirac gave the EU's spring summit a combustible start, quitting the opening session in protest at a perceived insult to the French language.
M. Chirac walked out of the meeting as it was being addressed by Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the president of the EU employers' federation, Unice. M. Seillière had been invited to address all 25 heads of government on economic reform.
After a brief introduction in French, M. Seillière said he would speak in English because it was the international business language. Without saying a word, the French President left with the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy and finance minister, Thierry Breton. He only returned when the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, began speaking in French. Tony Blair and other heads of government remained to hear M. Seillière urge EU leaders to resist national protectionism to avoid a negative domino effect on the single market.
Maria-Fernanda Fau, spokeswoman for Unice, said: "M. Seillière started in French and then moved into English. He uses English because he represents 20 million companies in 33 countries and this is the language of business."
M. Chirac's walkout was greeted with embarrassment by diplomats, who had hoped yesterday's summit would dispel the impression that economic nationalism is on the rise in Europe.
Once the predominant language of the EU, French is waning in Brussels, with English spoken more widely and used in many more EU documents. The rise of English has been unstoppable since Sweden and Finland joined the EU in 1995, followed by 10 more countries in 2004, most of them in eastern Europe, where English is by far the most common second language.
Though the French president speaks good English, and worked in the US in his youth, he has fought hard to defend France's linguistic status. M. Chirac has also criticised several aspects of English life including, last year, its food.
It is common to read that Chirac speaks good English, but I as a Frenchman can assure you that I never heard him use that language. And how could I have since Chirac considered it a betrayal to speak it in countries that don't have it as an official language. And since he kept trips to English-speaking countries to a minimum when he was a president and always made a point of speaking French with every foreigner, he can't have spoken much English during that time, even privately, which leads me to assume that he can't have had enough practise for his English to be fluent.
The fact that everybody repeats that line about Chirac speaking good English and never feels the need to substantiate it confirms once more that one only needs to say a lie often enough for everyone else to believe it. The French would have you believe that even though they avoid to speak English as much as humanly possible they can muster enough of it when they must. They market themselves as the ultimate success: a nation that has become as modern and wealthy as any without breaking with the past. Of course, it is easy to illustrate just the opposite thesis: that France has given up its Christian heritage without achieving sustainable economic success. Yet most commentators seem to drink the French kool-aid that the French state floods the world with.
Not that it will make any difference in the real world.