FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE, new president of France and co-prince of Andorra, has had many grave matters on his mind since taking office in May. They range from how to deal with France’s vertiginous national debt and disastrous unemployment, to his drooping poll numbers as disillusion with his feckless Socialist administration sets in after his first 100 days in office, to managing his awkward love life with one former and one current mistress publicly vying for his undivided attention. Then there has been the delicate chore of preparing a trip this month to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to attend the 14th summit of the International Organization of the Francophonie (IOF). The president of France is always the adulated star of these talk-fests, which include a goodly number of often corrupt former colonies and other second-raters where French is more or less spoken. Ostensibly intended to advance the French language, the Paris-based IOF—which operates under the tutelage of France’s minister for Francophonie, aptly named Yamina Benguigui—actually serves to hang on to a semblance of French influence abroad and stem the nefarious spread of English.
A presidential visit to the DRC is not without risk. It could appear to sanction the dodgy election last year of controversial President Joseph Kabila, and might unwittingly implicate France in the country’s vicious internecine fighting among Tutsis, Hutus, and Mai Mai militias. It could even expose Hollande to the current outbreak in the DRC of the deadly Ebola virus. Risk all this just to preach “linguistic diversity,” i.e., to counter English as the world’s de facto lingua franca, and discourage French speakers from using taboo expressions like “weekend” and “talk show”? But if Queen Elizabeth II is officially Defender of the Faith, France’s president is ex officio defender of la langue de Molière. Promoting correct usage among the world’s Francophonies goes with the territory.
French leaders have labored at it ever since then- Prime Minister Georges Pompidou created the High Commission for the Defense and Expansion of the French Language in 1966. He warned that it must “think big and act quickly to clean French of the filth it has picked up.” There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the “filth” in question was American terminology in the form of Franglais: the wholesale, indiscriminate, often ludicrous, use of English and pseudo-English words instead of French. President Nicolas Sarkozy, never known for being overly concerned about things cultural, took up the cudgels at the last IOF summit. He bitterly criticized French diplomats who “are happy to speak English,” rather than French, which is “under siege.” “Defending our language, defending the values it represents—that is a battle for cultural diversity in the World,” he insisted. The problem was not English itself, he said graciously, but “ready-to-wear culture, uniformity, monolingualism.” All code words, of course, for the spread of English at the expense of French.
Hélas, the sad truth for Francophonies is that Molière’s tongue is being coated by a bad case of Franglais. Some nations, like the practical Dutch and Scandinavians, easily adopt American expressions while retaining their cultural identity. The Spanish wield Spanglish and the Germans Denglish with relatively little travail. In culture-proud France, however, this pidgin version of American English is fraught with painful self-consciousness. As the commentator Eric Zemmour put it dolefully to Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, “The end of French political power has brought the end of French. Now even the French elite have given up. They don’t care anymore. They all speak English.”
INDEED. Witness shopkeepers who want to be up-to-date, to use the current French expression replacing the perfectly serviceable au courant (which, ironically, American sophisticates might prefer to “up-to-date”). A trade journal published a handy guide to terms they must learn: “Today’s retailer is a businessman who has his job in his shop. Self-made man or not, owner of a discount, of a self-service, of a drugstore or a building, the retailer uses brainstorming to analyze the tests guiding his marketing.” Advertising execs, in particular, can’t get enough of English to booster, as they say, their effort to appear hip. Peugeot cars promise “Motion and Emotion.” French ads for a handy tool tout it in English as a “Companion for Life.” Evian bottled water’s slogan is “Live Young,” while L’Oréal has cosmetics products like “Age Perfect” and “Revitalift Total Repair.” You can read all about such companies in their newsletter, or go online for a chat, not to be confused with a French sex kitten.
The word “fun,” like the concept itself, does not exist in French, so le fun has been cheerfully adopted, along with cool. And when having le fun, the French often now exclaim “waa-oou!”: two syllables, which is how the English word “wow” is pronounced in this diphthong-challenged nation. Mixing and matching at will, a shrugging Frenchman might express his indifference by saying, “Je ne care pas.” If something makes sense to him, he will simply translate word-forword from the English: Ça fait sens, though that means nothing in French. You would have thought the French, of all people, could at least swear in their own language, cursing and counting generally being the two things one reflexively does in the mother tongue. But though French has no lack of naughty words and expressions, a number of pungent four-letter Anglo- Saxon expletives are now in use, along with an insulting gesture involving the middle finger instead of the traditional Latin forearm.
In their eagerness to speak chic pidgin, the French even invent “English” words we would never use or recognize, often by adding “-ing.” So they now leave their car in un parking, instead of stationnement. Similarly, a campsite becomes un camping, a makeover is un relooking, shampoo froths into un shampooing. Manic invention goes further, making a bartender un barman, a tennis player un tennisman, an up-and-coming politician un comingman. To get in shape, un rugbyman will do his footing. Word order can be reversed, for reasons only a Frenchman understands, so when you meet him he will not give you a handshake, but a shakehand. A recent lexicon has no fewer than 620 pages of English words now current in French.
At one time or another, I have seen Paris shops both Right and Left Bank with names like Dream Store, Bus Stop, Broadway, Fashionable, 5th Avenue, Western House, Modern House, Please, American Breakfast, and To Day (yes, two words). Parisians are no longer surprised by un drugstore on the corner. These things come and go with the seasons, but cheek by jowl on the Champs Élysées at one point were New Store, Grill Shop, and Drug West, with its restaurant Snob Snack, where un hamburger is named The Classic.
Perfectly good justifications are thought up for such absurd nomenclature. At the Bus Stop store they explain that there is indeed an arrêt d’autobus across the street; besides, an English name is the way things are done now. Clients even ask if they have branches in America, the ultimate mark of success in picking a name. At the clothing store Ranch, an employee admitted, “When we opened, the ranch thing was fashionable. It’s not anymore, so we’re looking for another American name.” A young salesgirl at Murphy’s haberdashery, pressed for the etymology of the name, furrowed her pretty brow, then replied brightly, “Why, that’s from Greek mythology, isn’t it?”
BUT HOLD ON. The Francophonies are not about to quit without a struggle. English is clearly a symbol of Anglo-American cultural imperialism. It must be resisted at all costs. Thus the patriotic pilots of Air France, for one, fight a rearguard guerrilla action by occasionally bridling at air traffic control instructions given in English, the official language, for safety reasons, of international aviation.
The august Académie Française has entered the fray by issuing lists of Franglais words which it proscribes, together with suggested equivalents. The frequently used check-up, in the sense of medical exam, should be replaced by bilan de santé, it dictates. Likewise, open, whether an airline ticket reservation or a tennis tournament, should be ouvert or libre. It waffles on “management” and “mass media.” The former can be used in a pinch, the Academy says, as long as it is pronounced à la française, something like mahnagemawn, while the latter should become the awkward masses-media. The Gaul in the street has shrugged this off and gone on merrily inventing more “English” expressions.
If the number of organizations determined to defend French is any sign of concern, then the Francophonies appear to be in a paranoid state of near panic. They include—take a deep breath—the Study Commission for French Technical Terms, the Treasury of the French Language, the French Association of Normalization, the Young Francophones Association, the Association of Partially or Entirely French Language Universities, the Research and Study Center for French, the Consultative Commission on Scientific Languages, the national French radio system’s Committee for Defense of the Language, the Federation of Universal French, the General Inventory of the French Language, the Office of Good Language, and the International Council of the French Language.
The International Council produced a glossary that carefully divided Franglais words into four categories. Those on red pages are unequivocally and forever condemned without recourse as unacceptable at any time. Green pages are reserved for marginal words, possibly of tainted American origin but usable all the same. Blue pages hold words and expressions current and acceptable in wretched little Francophone countries in Africa, but not worthy of France itself. The absolutely okay words are on white pages. It sank without a trace.
Another commendable Council project is its word bank. When a conscientious Francophony is at a loss for a good French word and sorely tempted to use an Americanism, he can call the Council in despair and request a quick fix from the bank. Examples include the predictable communiqué for press release, as well as the more creative technocrate or chef de service for manager, and phono mécanique, surely more elegant than the humble jukebox. Sometimes even Council stalwarts throw up their hands and accept the inevitable. There is just no word in French for “climax,” for example, so they accept it on condition of a French pronunciation, kleemax. It warns solemnly, however, that “one should not use it without justification. Abuse would be reprehensible.”
Such touching concern for the language would be laudable if it were really about saving the mother tongue. It’s not, of course. As one perceptive French writer, the late Pierre Daninos, put it after surveying the Francophonie scene, “All this strikes me at first glance as being extremely healthy. At second glance (often the one that counts), as extremely unhealthy. This whole subject, and in particular the crusade led by some, has a wicked whiff of anti Americanism.”