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This can take bizarre forms. I know one family where Madame, proud bearer of “one of the best names in France,” as she says, uses the distant vous with her children until they obtain their high school diploma. Then, as a treat, she uses tu with them. All the while, the children have been using tu with her. There is also the case of my good friends Jean-Pierre and Marie-Louise. We have known each other for a quarter-century but we still use vous, although they use the familiar with other friends (but vous with their son). I gave up long ago trying to arrive at a rational basis for our verbal relationship.
BUT THOSE SLY MANIPULATORS of the spoken word, politicians, are the greatest virtuosos of the tu-vous conundrum. Among the members of the Communist and Socialist parties, the familiar form is obligatory, reflecting true Marxist comradeship. With conservatives it’s more complicated. Jacques Chirac, while president, used the familiar with his longtime political pals but they replied respectfully with vous. At one point he said tu to his minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, but vous to Dominique de Villepin, his prime minister, who in turn said vous to Sarkozy.
Since becoming president, Sarkozy has become adept at manipulating journalists by using tu with them whether they like it or not, the equivalent of George Bush’s nicknames. “He makes it hard for me to keep him at the necessary distance to maintain journalistic objectivity,” says one newsman at Le Monde. “He draws us into a closer relationship than we want when trying to cover the Elysee Palace.”
Still, it might be a good sign if ordinary citizens start using tu with him. As one sociologist explains the typical subservient French attitude toward the powers that be, “We use vous with the president because we’re actually still living in a monarchy and you have to respect the king.” Now if Frenchmen begin treating Sarkozy as a citizen-president instead of a monarch, we will know that France is indeed venturing into the terrain — itself complicated enough — of 21st-century democracy.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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