English Language Invasion of France

Keith Spicer, Citizen Special
Published: Monday, September 08, 2008 in the Ottawa Citizen:

It was bad enough that 17 singers at July's Francofolies festival of "French songs and music" performed in English -- including Sébastien Tellier, France's shades-sporting, caveman-chic choice for last May's huge Eurovision songfest. President Nicolas Sarkozy told education minister Xavier Darcos to "make France a bilingual nation." Now Darcos offers free holiday English courses to French high-school students. French youth must become fluently bilingual, he warns, or be "handicapped."
Mon Dieu! What's happening? History is happening. And six weeks before Quebec City's Francophonie summit of 29 French-speaking countries (plus 26 sympathizers), it's worth asking where history is going.
Why is France prickly about its language? For three centuries (17th to 19th), French was the world language of diplomacy, and a prestigious intellectual and scientific tool. By the early 20th century, English was catching up. Two world wars put English on top, entrenching it ever deeper as the new world language of politics, science and economics -- even (see book translations) literature.

Flashback to Charles de Gaulle. After his humiliating wartime refuge in London, he refused to speak English. As president in 1958, he ordered his ministers to speak publicly only in French. In 1966 he set up a "High Committee for the Defence and Expansion of the French Language," which reported to Prime Minister Georges Pompidou -- a French literature professor and anthologist of French poetry. (In those faraway days, speaking English in a Paris restaurant could earn you a snarl. Today's waiters flaunt their English).
President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing famously used English to talk with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Unilingual bookworm-president François Mitterrand showed his love of French at every turn. So much so that unproven allegations have emerged that he favoured Hutu killers during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Why? Allegedly because they were French-speaking -- while exiled Tutsi leaders were English-speaking.
Gaullist president Jacques Chirac stomped out of a European summit in 2006 -- "profoundly shocked" that France's big-business boss Ernest-Antoine Seillière gave a speech in English "because that is the language of business." Chirac was a fervent partisan of la Francophonie, though proud of his English skills.
La Francophonie -- for which Canada and Quebec show much enthusiasm -- plays a valuable symbolic role for French-speakers. It also runs some useful programs. But its production of grand papers, rhetoric and official banquets leaves room for more concrete action. (Disclosure: somehow I got parachuted into the gloriously-named, 30-member "High Council for la Francophonie." We were so useful that our bosses abolished us after three years.)
On rhetoric and reality: French intellectuals and governments have long argued that French is the world's richest, most precise and most beautiful language. A little home-team vanity. Rich? France has maybe 100,000 non-technical words. English has well over 600,000. Precise? One of French's distinctive merits is rather its allusiveness: think romance, wine, politics, philosophy. Notes Francophile-but-iconoclastic historian Bill Bryson: "The French cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman."
As for beauty, millions of us find French a joy to read and speak. But almost every nation in the world (with the possible exception of those self-deprecating Dutch) finds its language poetic.
Mystique is partly to blame for French's weakness: resistance to change. English is a vacuum-cleaner: it cheerfully steals or invents new words wherever it can. French is a fortress: Its gate-keeping Académie Française fights to keep foreign or too-novel words out of the national tongue. This creates a huge disconnect between purists and people. Ordinary folks find English "modern," "sexy" and "useful," so they welcome handy English words.
This -- plus English's now-dominant place in European Union and world affairs -- shows why France now soft-pedals rearguard linguistic battles. Accepting reasonable Anglo-reality is only a "defeat" to nostalgia-mongers. Even they are coming around: When Sarkozy threatened to make France 24, the "French CNN," kill its English and Arabic channels and broadcast only in French, he had to back off. Killing those channels would have sold French ideas only to a tiny French-speaking audience.

Today's French scientists publish mainly in English. Several French multinationals use English as their "internal" international language. Intellectuals and journalists lard their commentaries with English references -- and, sadly, with so many English words that franglais ("Frenglish") is now more than a fashionable joke.
Bad English is indeed the world's most widely spoken language. Darcos's new English courses can help France talk "Anglo world-speak" better, and thus compete better. It doesn't matter that Sarkozy, as the French expression goes, speaks English like a Spanish cow. His bilingual France meets today's world head-on.
For this, rock-singer Tellier makes a zippy motivator. Francofolies boss Gérard Pont, a militant French promoter, admits: "Banning English at Francofolies would be suicide." De Gaulle spins in his grave. Happily, Sarko and Darcos also plan to teach French much, much better.
Keith Spicer, a former Citizen editor who lives and writes in Paris, was Canada's first Commissioner of Official Languages (1970-77).

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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