Was it a verbal faux pas, or a jeu de mots gone wrong? We will probably never know, but Emmanuel Macron’s choice of English words certainly set Australian tongues wagging.
“I want to thank you for your welcome,” the French president said to the country’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, at the end of a joint press conference in Sydney on Wednesday. “Thank you and your delicious wife for your warm welcome.”
The more charitable among the Australian media present reckoned Macron, who was in Australia for trade and regional security talks before visiting the French territory of New Caledonia, was already thinking of his lunch.
Turnbull had just observed that the president had to rush off for a meal with the French community in Sydney. “Yes, for French gastronomy, for the French winery,” Macron replied, moving on to describe his host’s wife too as “delicious”.
Others said the French president, who prides himself on speaking fluent – though not flawless – English, might have fallen foul of a faux ami, the French term for a word that sounds similar in another language but carries a different meaning.
The French word délicieux, while often employed for the taste of food, would be better translated as “lovely” or “delightful” when used to describe a person.
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Still others thought Macron may have been attempting an albeit slightly obscure joke referencing Donald Trump’s visit to Paris last year, when the US president was caught on camera telling his host’s wife, Brigitte, that she was “in such great shape … beautiful”.
Whatever the explanation, Macron’s English is an improvement on that of his predecessors. “I’m sorry for the time,” Nicolas Sarkozy once said to Hillary Clinton. That is one meaning of the word temps, but he meant another – the weather.
François Hollande also came in for criticism after he signed a letter of congratulation to Barack Obama following his 2008 election with the words: “Friendly, François Hollande”. That was a direct translation of amicalement, meaning “warm regards”.
But faux amis can also work the other way. The former British prime minister Tony Blair, who speaks pretty good French, was once caught out when he tried to say, “I envy you” to his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin.
Instead of “Je vous envie”, he said: “J’ai envie de vous” – “I want you.”