Forget the major strikes kicking off on Tuesday in France over Emmanuel Macron’s reforms. For those fighting the drawn-out battle for the French language, the French president committed the ultimate faux pas last week by tweeting in ‘Franglais’.
“La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre (democracy is the most bottom up system on the planet),” Macron posted enthusiastically on Twitter during a summit on Artificial Intelligence in Paris on March 29, unleashing a torrent of furious tweets. The content of his post was not obviously contentious, except that it was in Franglais, a mix of French and English that has been steadily creeping into the French language for decades.
Je crois dans l'autonomie et la souveraineté. La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre. #AIforhumanity
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) March 29, 2018
“FRENCH PLEASE,” wrote one exasperated Tweeter. “Jean-Claude Van Damme à l’Élysée”, posted another, referring to the Belgian Hollywood actor, who is often mocked in France for his liberal use of English words when he speaks in his French mother tongue. “You obviously don’t believe in the French language, which carries these same values,” another quipped.
A commentator of note even weighed in. “This sentence takes the value out of the democracy that is French expression,” tweeted Bernard Pivot, a respected writer and former journalist in France, who regularly speaks up for the “language of Molière”, as French is often referred to by the French.
"La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre." E. Macron. Cette phrase dévalue la démocratie d'expression française.
— bernard pivot (@bernardpivot1) March 30, 2018
Macron committed two offences in his incendiary tweet: not only was the incriminating word in English but it was also a business term. In a country where many people are wary of business and finance, Emmanuel Macron’s experience of working as an investment banker at Rothschild and the ease with which he navigates in business and finance circles is sometimes regarded with suspicion.
Is English understood by all French people?
“[Macron], whose wife Brigitte was a French teacher, is used to this language that he has taken from the business world, and from where he boasts to have borrowed some recipes and imported them into politics,” wrote Le Parisien. “We have stopped counting the number of speeches he has given in English, a language he speaks fluently with a slight American accent. Or the words he has borrowed from the ‘language of Shakespeare,” the newspaper adds, with a touch of irony. “Political doublespeak? The danger is that he isn’t understood by all. But that is not what the president is trying to achieve, rather he seeks to reassure investors and financiers,” it concluded.
— Anne-France (@alni92) April 2, 2018
In November, on his first trip to Africa as president, Emmanuel Macron said he hoped French would become the main language in Africa and “maybe even the world”. Today, French is the world’s fifth most spoken language and the third global business language, according to The International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF).
Former French presidents put to shame
Macron, who slips into English with an ease rarely shown by his predecessors (neither of the ex-presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy excelled in the language of Shakepeare, and Jacques Chirac once walked out of a meeting at the EU after a Frenchman began speaking English) believes conversing in Franglais could even help the French language. “I don’t think twice about speaking French and English at the same time on the international scene or in business circles,” Macron told Europe1 radio. “I think it reinforces Francophonie to show that French isn’t a static language, but that it is plurilingual. I’m not one of its grouchy defenders”.
Luckily, the Académie Française, which has sometimes been described in those terms, guards the French language staunchly. This influential official authority, which was founded in 1635, offers grammatical advice and alternatives to new foreign words. Its website has a whole section devoted to “Neologisms and Anglicisms” with a series of articles on how to replace English words with “proper” French ones.
The body works with the Commission for the Enrichment of the French Language, whose experts are called on to approve new words, particularly in the fast-moving domains of technology and science. The commission’s latest recommendations in January were met with some bemusement when, for example, it suggested “smartphone” be replaced with the somewhat more cumbersome “mobile multifonction”.
‘Hashtag’ isn’t ‘cool’
The linguist and author Jean Maillet is one of the most vocal critics of the use of English in French. In a recent book, he urges the French to drop 100 English words such as “cool” and “hashtag” that are commonly used in French today. “There is a certain snobbery, even a ‘cool’ condescending attitude attached to using English words. There is also a certain linguistic laziness,” Maillet told 20 Minutes. “Then there is advertising, which is constantly addressing us in English. Along with being the vector of ultraliberalism, this violates the constitution, which stipulates that French is the official language.”
Clearly the wagging of Gallic tongues on this topic is unlikely to end any time soon.